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Hungarian director and screenwriter Márta Mészáros’s best-known film from 1975, Adoption, stars Katalin Berek as a middle-aged single woman who has realized that she wants a child. Through her own observations and friendships with neglected children, she becomes more and more convinced that it is the right choice for her at this point in her life. (KIZJ: 4/5)
Review by FF2 Contributing Editor Katusha Jin
An alarm bell pierces through the stillness of a dark bedroom. “Kata” (Katalin Berek) slowly turns to switch it off, allowing the clock to return to its usual ticking. She muffles a few coughs as her feet find their way off the bed; without even as much as a pause, she gets up to open the blinds to peer out her windows. The trees are bare and the waters are calm—it looks like every other cold, serene morning. As Kata wanders out of the bedroom and into the kitchen, the ticking subsides. During her shower, we trace parts of her body and linger on her navel. She continues through her well-rehearsed morning routine without a single word leaving her lips; after all, there is no one to speak to.
At work, the sounds from home are replaced by the loud sounds of machinery; Kata works in a factory along with other women. No words are exchanged. We see glimpses of her body again, but this time it is through an examination by a Doctor. She would like to bear a child but is well into her 40s. Unfortunately, although her health is in good condition, her real obstacle is the reluctance of her lover, “Jóska” (László Szabó), to provide even just the sperm alone. He already has a wife and children and doesn’t want any further complications. Clearly upset by her proposition, he tries to convince her it is a bad idea because a child should not be without a father.
When Kata next looks outside her window, she sees a group of teenagers come towards her home. They are children who have been abandoned by their parents and live at an institution nearby. “Anna” (Gyöngyvér Vigh) is one of the children who has had her share of difficulties in childhood. She now has a long-term boyfriend whom she wants to marry but is too young to do so without parental consent. Anna’s struggle to break free from her parents’ leash and Kata’s journey in learning about parenting brings the two together. Through this friendship, Kata understands the importance of good parenting and the trauma that may be created without it.
Adoption is directed by Márta Mészáros and co-written by Mészáros, Ferenc Grunwalsky, and Gyula Hernádi. This 1975, the film was recognized for its achievements when it won its Golden Bear award—the highest award at Berlin International Film Festival. This was the first-ever Golden Bear awarded to a woman director and became the film that Mészáros is now most known for. Although Mészáros never actively engaged in feminist movements, she valued the importance of women telling full-voiced stories from their perspectives. She explained that she doesn’t consider herself a feminist per se because it’s a philosophy, “I’m just a woman who makes movies, and thinks women are allowed to exist just the same way that men are.” A lot of her documentaries focus on mothers who are alone—a rarely explored perspective.
There are a plethora of movies out there that look at motherhood, several of which have been reviewed by FF2 Media: The Kids Are All Right, Olive Kitteridge, Lady Bird, Tully, Loving Couples (1964). The focus varies from the struggles in maintaining a healthy relationship after the kids are born and how to make good of an unexpected pregnancy. But in Adoption, we have a woman with a choice. By following Kata throughout her experience of wanting to become a mother, Adoption hones in on Kata’s thought process, ability to self-reflect, and to understand her situation. When she finds herself coughing in the morning, she books a checkup with a doctor. When her lover refuses to give her a child, she mulls over other options. Her life is never overdramatized. If and when a problem arises, she logically works through them and finds a solution.
Even though there are many characters with hardships in their backstories, Mészáros keeps them as precisely that—backstories. She doesn’t linger on any of these and doesn’t attempt to draw pity from the viewers. Instead, she shows us the result of broken parent-child relationships and uses dialogue to show what society’s expectations are for a single woman in her 40s considering having a child. The director leaves the audience to observe and make their own conclusions, which is somewhat akin to giving a child the tools to understand something rather than dictate what they should know.
Adoption is a film about a single woman whose husband has died and is content having a lover upon whom she is not overly reliant. She works, has her own home, and has realized that now she wants a baby—and there is no shame that it’s outside the “norm.” The film is not only about what it means to be a mother, but also about questioning society’s expectations on the when and the why of motherhood. Although feminism may not have been the core idea of the film for Mészáros initially, in hindsight, the film empowers women by defying expectations.
Feature Photo: Katalin Berek as “Kata” and Gyöngyvér Vigh as “Anna” in with Márta Mészáros’s 1975 Adoption (Örökbefogadas)
Middle Photo: Katalin Berek
Bottom Photo: Katalin Berek and Gyöngyvér Vigh
Photo Credits: Magda B. Müller
Q: Does Adoption pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Yes! When the girls from the institution first come to visit Kata, they ask about her profession.