Film Review: The Citizen

A timely, tough drama about life’s randomness upending an African refugee’s fight for Hungarian citizenship.
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We don’t see much of Hungary in Roland Vranik’s refugee drama The Citizen. But for a few tourist-like trips to the sights of Budapest, the movie’s view of the nation is limited mostly to mundane spaces: an apartment, a supermarket, government offices and the streets between. At first, this might seem odd. After all, the thrust of the protagonist’s arc is his years-long attempt to gain citizenship, which involves passing a complex quiz on history and culture that the average Hungarian would likely flunk. But, since he is a refugee from Guinea-Bissau, where civil war claimed his wife and possibly both his daughters, the particulars of Hungary are not important. There is no war, he has a home and a job. Hungary is what he wants.

Like many dramas about determined, lonely people, what gets Wilson (Cake-Baly Marcelo) in trouble on his dogged march forward is life and love. A steady, responsible, kindly man, Wilson works as a security guard at a supermarket. A sympathetic type, he cautions a teenage shoplifter to leave an item behind so he won’t get arrested. His roommate has just decamped for Austria, and he has one friend, a butcher (István Znamenák) with whom he sometimes drinks and talks football. Then, life happens.

First, Shirin (Arghavan Shekari), a young pregnant Iranian woman without papers, shows up at Wilson’s door saying his ex-roommate said she could stay there. Since if she goes to a hospital she’ll get reported and deported back to a country where shame and shunning await her, Shirin gives birth in Wilson’s flat. While they hatch a half-baked plan for him to marry her in order to obtain status (a “paper marriage,” they call it), Wilson starts studying for his next test, this time with a tutor.

Mari (Ágnes Máhr), the sister of Wilson’s boss Éva (Tünde Szalontay), has three generations of men living in her home—husband, son, grandson—none of whom seem able to fend for themselves. Along comes Wilson, greying at the temples but with young and kindly eyes. She plays him Bartok, takes him to churches and museums, and gently corrects his Hungarian. He plays Fela Kuti for her and makes clear that it was love at first sight, her husband and any cultural differences be damned. Though what trips up their fast, flashing romance isn’t either of those issues so much as it is the bureaucratic tripwires of undocumented lives and the delayed fuse that is all the poor decisions Wilson made before Mari came on the scene.

While not overtly critiquing the nation’s recent xenophobic turn, Vranik is hardly blind to the problems of an African outsider in white Hungary. A co-worker can’t wait to use a racial slur after Wilson wins employee of the year. Although Éva values Wilson as a worker, she can’t comprehend her sister’s attraction to a black man, both cautioning Mari (“They’re not like us”) and voyeuristically wanting details of their lovemaking. But the greater risk to Wilson’s future is the continued presence of Shirin and her baby in his flat and her uncertain status in the world, unwilling to return to a home that doesn’t want her and unable to stay. Dramatically frustrating, this knot of impossible decisions—the only way for Wilson to stay with Mari is to abandon Shirin to her fate—nevertheless vividly illustrates the refugee’s dilemma.

Deliberately paced but shot with a quiet magnetism and close-in immediacy,The Citizen benefits in comparison to other immigrant dramas because even though this is a story suffused with empathy, it doesn’t center on either a good deed being done by a white Westerner for a helpless dark-skinned foreigner or that foreigner’s two-dimensional pluck. Mari wants to help, but she’s also truly in love. Wilson wants to be both the father and husband he once was but cannot be both. Shirin just wants to survive. This is a timely story about what happens when the randomness of life bangs into the implacable rules of the state.

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