THREE STARS – Thought-provoking
The struggle of religious families to protect their children from the secularization of their culture is the theme of Hungarian writer and director Istvan Szabo’s latest film “Sunshine.”
Based loosely on his own family tree and filmed in the home and courtyard of his childhood, Szabo presents three generations of a Jewish family whose choices to assimilate into the surrounding culture cost them far more than their souls could bear.
Requiring a lengthy film to portray the generational consequences of the choices which are made, “Sunshine” is the English translation of their Jewish/German family name, Sonnenschein.
The family fortune is based on a secret recipe the family patriarch had developed before his distillery exploded and took his life. But his son, Emmanuel Sonnenschein (David De Keyser), moved to Budapest and became a very wealthy and successful distiller of the elixir, “Sunshine.”
His two sons, Ignatz (Ralph Fiennes) and Gustave (James Frain) rise in social status from their grandfather’s tavern to the professions of legal and medical doctors.
But their financial and cultural success seduces them spiritually.
For political, career advancement and social approval reasons, Ignatz, Gustave and their cousin Valerie (Jennifer Ehle) decide to change their name to Sors - a Hungarian name meaning destiny which also ironically describes the painful sores their lives experience when they leave behind the faith of their fathers and the guidance of the Torah.
That wasn’t, of course, the way they initially understood the nature of their choices. It takes the perspective of generations to understand the spiritual price that is paid when one sells one’s identity and faith for temporary and temporal gain.
Emmanuel senses this truth but is not strong enough in his own conviction, wisdom and faith to explain the danger to his sons and niece when they ask him if he will give his permission for them to change their name. He only asks for their assurance that they will not change their faith.
But choices which take us down certain paths have a way of encouraging corollary choices which naturally follow the chosen terrain.
This simple shift and accommodation begins a journey that leaves behind much of the wisdom their religious tradition had provided. No longer confronted with the teachings of the dangers of lust, greed, power and pride, the children and grandchildren of Ignatz walk a painful path of disillusionment, affairs, adultery, incest, dishonesty, imprisonment, oppression and finally come full circle toward wisdom as Emmanuel’s great grandson Ivan Sors (also Ralph Fiennes) chooses to return to his family name of Sonnenschein.
Istvan Szabo’s film is an explicit portrayal of the degradation his characters experience in their loss of faith and identity which many will find offensive. But the message it presents is a clear example of the Biblical explanation in the Ten Commandments that loss of faith will damage a family for generations as the sins of the fathers are passed down to their children.