If nothing else, Miklós Jancsó’s Red Psalm is certainly the most unique musical I’ve ever seen. A melodic folk pageant detailing a peasants’ revolt in 1890s Hungary. In protest against the fixed (in every sense of the word) sum paid to them by landowners, groups of poor farmers link arms to reject the inexhaustible pressure of police, government officials and the army. Characters often break out into song seemingly as and when they please.
To attribute Red Psalm entirely as a musical would be flippant but it has a distinct sing-song cadence and this is communicated through Jancsó’s legendary use of the camera. If you have never seen a Miklós Jancsó film before, the basic fact to know is that the man was not one for quick takes (he once claimed it’s because he hated editing). Red Psalm consists of just 28 sequence shots (an average film of a similar run-time would consist of several hundred, to put that into perspective)
Red Psalm is a perpetual motion machine – the camera and everybody contained within the frame (and outside of it, too) are forever shifting about. The peasants move and sing in circles as the camera pulls out to reveal wide pastoral landscapes before zooming in almost suffocatingly close to catch slight changes in countenance. Often, the camera will track one way with a character only to have its attention turned by a character walking in the other direction. Like his other films, the effect is astounding. It would be easy to believe that Jancsó utilised steadicam if that wouldn’t be an anachronism.
Jancsó’s roving gaze is balletic but also distant. We get to know very little about any of the characters who seem to come and go from the story. In a film like The Red and the White the distance is a refusal to give a face to war and it makes for compulsive viewing. In Red Psalm, the emotional disconnect shines a light on the repetitive structure in which the proletarians are surrounded by their oppressors in overly choreographed fashion time and time again. Technically, Red Psalm is the work of a master but he has married form and content more harmoniously in other films. (6)