On Body and Soul
Endre works in a slaughterhouse as the chief financial officer. At night he dreams he is a deer, roaming a wintry forest with his partner.
Maria works in the slaughterhouse as the quality inspector. At night she dreams she is a deer, roaming a wintry forest with her partner.
When the two co-workers take a workplace psychiatric evaluation, their simultaneous dreaming comes to light. Maria is new at the job, an autistic misfit who makes her fellow employees uncomfortable. They mock her robotic ways and lack of personality behind her back. Endre, however, has taken notice of her, and emboldened by the test’s revelations begins to try to start a relationship with her.
The Hungarian Oscar nominee (best foreign film) “On Body and Soul” is a beautiful film to look at. One would think a slaughterhouse would not make for such an ideal backdrop, but in cinematographer Máté Herbai’s hands the contrasting whites and red make for an almost purified futuristic landscape. There’s a moment when a lump of meat hangs from the ceiling. It’s white with red streaks and the background is pristine. You could easily forget where you were and enter the room with the intent to relax. Things do get graphic at times. The film doesn’t shy away from what is being done in the work environment and it’s enough to make you swear off meat for an hour or so. If slaughterhouse imagery isn’t your thing, don’t worry. The location pretty much drops away during the second half of the film, causing hour one and hour two to feel like very different movies.
Story wise, the first hour is difficult to sit through. The characters are not that interesting nor is the plot point that brings our protagonists together. There are characters who feel like they will be a big part of the story, but then disappear, their job in advancing the plot complete. Things pick up a bit in hour two, though, and that is in part thanks to actress Alexandra Borbély’s earnest and caring portrayal of Maria.
Great care is taken when exploring Maria’s life. In lesser hands, Maria could have turned into the manic pixie dream girl stereotype or a whimsical Wes Anderson figure. But the character is written and played with an understanding of autism. Alongside her movements, Borbély’s speaking is flat, but this isn’t an imitation of someone who struggles with social anxiety. There is true trepidation in every action.
It’s unfortunate the film really doesn’t start exploring Maria’s efforts to open up until late in the film. These moments are slightly touched with comedy, but they are still very heartfelt and aware of what the experience might be like for someone in a similar situation. But up until this point, “On Body and Soul” is as empty as Maria’s expression, and it doesn’t look like it’s meant to be a symbolic emptiness. The film is just boring.
While Maria becomes a fully fleshed out character, Endre never really evolves beyond just a man who is interested in her. His actions late in the film also make him a difficult person to want Maria to fall in love with.
“On Body and Soul” could have been a great love story but a weak male lead and a lot of slow and unnecessary pacing early on hold the film back. The body is definitely in place for a great film. Unfortunately, the soul is missing.
“On Body and Soul” is currently streaming on Netflix.