By EDDIE COCKRELL
A Merkelfilm production. (International sales: MDC Intl., Berlin.) Produced by Agnes Csere.
Directed, written by Csaba Bollok.
With: Maria Varga, Marion Rusache, Rozsika Varga, Marius Bodochi, Agnes Csere, Noemi Fodor, Dan Tudor, Zsolt Bogdan.
(Hungarian, Romanian dialogue)
A determined 12-year-old girl survives the extreme poverty of her Romanian coal-mining town but is overwhelmed by the outside world in keenly observed drama "Iska's Journey." Too downbeat for most general auds, pic will nevertheless burnish nascent rep of talented Hungarian helmer Csaba Bollok, whose "North by North" turned heads in 1998, and travel from twin launches at Hungarian Film Week and Berlin's teen-oriented Generations program to fests and specialized biz on all platforms.
With her button nose, generous freckles and wise eyes, Iska (Maria Varga) looks for all the world like a cross between "Paper Moon"-era Tatum O'Neal and Kevin Corcoran as Disney's Toby Tyler. In her dirt-poor village in the Zsil River valley, Iska works in terrible conditions scavenging metal, coal and anything else of value from the rubble. When she returns home penniless after daring to dicker with a buyer, her resourcefulness is rewarded with a sound beating.
Deciding without much fanfare she's better off on her own, Iska leaves her sick sister Rozsika (Rozsika Varga) and begins to drift, soon finding herself ensnared in an orphanage system that tries to do right by the children but seems woefully inadequate to the task. Appearing as one authority figure is Agnes Csere, pic's producer and Bollok's wife.
On the move again, she hooks up with nice boy Marian (Marion Rusache). They decide to go to the seaside, but before they can escape the town, Iska is kidnapped and sold into a child prostitution ring.
"I want to go home," says one child. "Home?" another asks, in pic's chilling coda. "Where is home?"
Bollok first met his leading actress in 2002, photographing her doing exactly what auds first see her doing here. Her perf, at once innately dignified and terrifyingly vulnerable, holds the viewer through the first two acts and dramatically underscores the real-life human tragedy revealed in the third.
Tech credits are spare but sharp. Incredibly, vet d.p. Francisco Gozon shot entire pic using handheld 35mm.
Camera (color), Francisco Gozon; editor, Judit Czako; music, Balazs Temesvari; art directors, Csaba Czene, Mihaly Kostyal, Radu Razvan; costume designer, Melinda Doman; sound (Dolby Digital), Andras Vamosi. Reviewed at Hungarian Film Week, Budapest, Feb. 2, 2007. (Also in Berlin Film Festival -- Generation Kplus.) Running time: 93 MIN.