Politics are the enemy in Gábor Reisz’s Explanation for Everything, an ambitious, entertaining effort from the Hungarian filmmaker to address the crisis of divisiveness in his country. Filmed with little care for catering to audiences outside Hungary who may not grasp its political reference points––a welcome choice that lets viewers pick up on things as the film proceeds––Reisz gradually sets the scene for one small, key moment that snowballs into a national scandal. Starting out as an awkward comedy, the film builds itself up into one long, exasperated scream at the absurdity of how almost everything can be weaponized into political issues.
Split into chapters, Explanation for Everything looks at several days from the perspective of three interconnected characters. The first is Ábel (Gáspár Adonyi-Walsh), a high school senior studying for his exams when he realizes he’s in love with his classmate Janka (Lilla Kizlinger). After watching him study over a Monday, the film starts at the beginning from the perspective of György (István Znamenák), Ábel’s father, who puts immense pressure on his son to pass his exams. The third central character is Jakab (András Rusznák), Abel’s history teacher and the object of Janka’s affection. It takes little time to establish Ábel as the shy, emotional teenager, György as an old, stubborn reactionary, and Jakab as a stubborn, progressive liberal.
The lengthy set-up gives Reisz space to take a light, comedic approach that highlights the three men bumbling their way through life: Ábel trying and failing to express his love to Janka; György flying into rants about his pride for Hungary upon news of a colleague moving to Denmark; Jakab interviewing a survivor of the Hungarian Revolution, which goes awry when he tries correcting his interview subject on statments around what they lived through. The narrative quickly changes as Ábel goes to do his oral exam for Jakab’s history class. Dressed in formal wear, he clams up over seeing Janka beforehand, and during the exam Jakab asks Ábel why he has a nationality pin on his jacket.
The truth is that Ábel forgot he still had it on from when he last wore the suit during Hungary’s day celebrating their independence. But the pin, once seen as just something commemorative, has since been politicized––people wearing it outside the holiday might be considered a right-wing nationalist. György later tears into Ábel for failing his exam, and Ábel says Jakab failed him because he was wearing the pin. Being a proud nationalist himself, György gets furious at Ábel’s claim, starts to tell others about it, and once a journalist overhears his story everything escalates.
Although Explanation for Everything ties to issues specific to Hungary, most people in the Western world should relate to its broader points about the way things can almost always be hijacked and reduced to issues of ideology and politics. In his director’s statement, Reisz cites a real-life event that inspired the film: at the university where he teaches, a reorganization from the government took away the school’s autonomy, prompting backlash from students and staff that turned into party politics even though “the students’ only aim was to be able to take part in autonomous education.”
People may not take to Reisz’s pleas for the apolitical, and his film’s shift to direct commentary becomes inherently less interesting than its observational first half. Yet it’s refreshing to see a filmmaker tackle contemporary issues head-on without falling into the “both sides” labeling or cringe moralizing. Explanation for Everything shows an understanding of the problems plaguing its own country, but it’s smart enough to see the larger issues at hand––how people can be manipulated into projecting their beliefs onto things that aren’t really relevant to them. By the end, Explanation for Everything provides a strange sense of relief in finally seeing a film adequately sum up the frustration and insanity that’s come to dominate our way of living these past several years.
Explanation for Everything premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival.