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Palm Springs Review: Keep Quiet

Variety logo Variety 1/18/2017 Dennis Harvey
© Provided by Variety

With far-right nationalist ideologies suddenly a matter of pressing interest to almost everyone, the timing is regrettably ideal for “Keep Quiet.” This fascinating documentary by co-directors Joseph Martin and Sam Blair finds a stranger-than-fiction hook for probing that disturbing global trend, with their protagonist a prominent, unabashedly anti-Semitic leader of controversial extremist groups whose political career derails when it emerges that his own family was Jewish not so long ago — even falling victim to the same Holocaust he and his cronies have denied.

But the redemptive arc of his embracing a new identity here is shadowed by doubt, as many viewers will question whether this turnabout is sincere or merely opportunistic. The result has a certain unreliable-narrator frisson that lends “Keep Quiet” an air of thriller-like drama. Kino Lorber plans to launch a U.S. theatrical run mid-February in New York, with Los Angeles following in early March.

Csanad Szegedi’s 2009 election to the European Parliament was viewed as a triumph for Jobbik, Hungary’s “radically patriotic Christian party,” and viewed with alarm by opponents of its ethno-nationalist rhetoric. Just 27 at the time, Szegedi had risen very quickly through party ranks, and the prior year had co-founded the more overtly neo-fascist Hungarian Guard (Magyar Garda), a paramilitary organization that flaunted Nazi associations and was soon officially banned by the government for opposing minorities’ constitutionally guaranteed rights. Nonetheless, Szegedi’s future seemed secure as the acceptable young face of Jobbik’s borderline-inflammatory yet politically savvy arch-conservatism.

Or so it seemed until a resentful outlier on the fringes of the movement uncovered the fact that Szegedi’s maternal grandparents were Jewish — which was news to him, despite the fact that the beloved grandmother in question was still very much alive. Jobbik briefly considered keeping him on as a sort of “house Jew” whose presence could be utilized to combat accusations of anti-Semitism. But once the news was leaked to the public, the party simply tossed him out. “Keep Quiet” grows even more bizarre once the shell-shocked subject, abruptly severed from the causes he’d championed his whole life, is seen trying to remake himself as a full-blown, observant Orthodox Jew under the sympathetic mentorship of Rabbi Baruch Oberlander. The latter, a New Yorker transplanted to Budapest, believes everyone with Jewish ancestry merits acceptance by the community, and that Szegedi in particular should be given a chance to redeem his harmful past actions.

Not everyone else is so sure about that, however. After all, Szegedi didn’t voluntarily abandon his Jew-baiting, Holocaust-doubting milieu — he was forcibly ejected from it. Is his new focus on a highly public atonement an earnest one, or it just a case of seizing a fresh podium to replace the old one? (A question implicit if not explicitly raised here is to what extent being the “star” of this documentary itself is motivating him.) Jewish audiences he lectures to, the Hungarian press, and many other observers remain skeptical when not downright furiously dismissive of his “born again” repentant persona.

It’s hard not to share that ambivalence. Even when he travels with actual Auschwitz survivor Eva Neumann to tour the infamous camp where she lost most of her family, Szegedi seems to be playing a role in which he can’t quite convey the intended humility. It’s easier to accept his more personally focused pain in hearing the confessions of his grandma, who before her death he’d videotaped talking about her own experiences — and how the atmosphere in Hungary’s post-war, Communist era and afterward remained sufficiently anti-Semitic that she not only didn’t discuss the Holocaust, she “passed” as Christian and hid her concentration camp tattoo under long sleeves for decades. Asked how a Jew should behave in Hungary, she poignantly provides the film’s title.

A complex tale astutely assembled on all levels, “Keep Quiet” gains even more of a narrative-drama air from Marton Vizkelety’s widescreen photography, and from a spare yet urgent score by cellist Philip Sheppard.

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