You can describe some things in print – bestiality, sado-masochism, grotesque sexual exploitation – that are very difficult to show on film without so revolting spectators they lose their capacity to reflect on your themes. The challenge for a filmmaker attempting to adapt the Agota Kristof novella The Notebook is how much of its startlingly amoral world can actually be shown – not to mention how to represent the singular perspective of its dual narrators, young twin brothers who speak as one "we."
On that score, at least, the Hungarian director Janos Szasz has the remarkable Laszlo and Andras Gyemant to represent the twins's unblinking gaze on the adult world and the complete reversal of conventional morality to which that leads them. His film rises to the challenges of showing what they see, but does not completely conquer them.
To those who haven't previously encountered her work, Kristof can be a revelation of Beckettian proportions. Born in 1935, she was a Hungarian who escaped her homeland during the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising. She settled in Switzerland and wrote The Notebook (and two subsequent novellas that form a trilogy) in French. She produced a handful of other works before her death in 2011, but The Notebook, published in 1986, remains her best-known work; translated into numerous languages, it has inspired a play, a video game and now this film.
The prose is sparse but not without adult verbiage and constructions: prepubescent twin brothers living in wartime are sent by their mother from some sophisticated city to their grandmother's house in the dirt-poor countryside where, beaten, sexually exploited and made to work for any food they might eat, they descend into a state of unemotional survivalism. With chilling rationalism about their motives and the suffering they see, they record all that happens to them in their notebook; here, the script occasionally uses passages from the boys' book as narration.
From their naive description of their surroundings, we assume this is Eastern Europe under the Nazis and then the Communists. Szasz's camera depicts an appropriate wartime setting without ever explaining why the boys' mother needs to get them out of the city. With gently impassive faces into which the viewer can read everything from sweetness and sorrow to recalcitrance and hatred, the Gyemant brothers perfectly capture that state of youthful ignorance where one accepts as normal whatever one's surroundings and situation happen to be. Continually insulted and deprived, they decide to train themselves to withstand pain and hunger by beating each other and refusing food. Their sadistic grandmother (her grotesqueness fabulously captured by Piroska Molnar) then slaughters a chicken, roasts it and devours it in front of them. They learn the lesson well, and proceed to kill her prize hen.
That is but a minor exchange of brutalities compared to much of what happens with the boys and their circle – their thieving young neighbour Harelip, who is named for her facial deformity; the kind Jewish cobbler who gives them winter boots; and the sexually hungry young maid who works for the local priest. In adapting the novel, Szasz and screenwriters Tom Abrams and Andras Szeker tread carefully, leaving a lot to the imagination: We can guess what the German officer billeted on the property might be thinking when he sees the boys beating each other, but we never see him act on that.
At times, however, the filmmaker crosses the line and sentimentalizes his tough material. The boys, for example, take an ill-considered revenge on the maid for what is, in the novel, a minor act of sadism against locals who are being rounded up by soldiers. Here, as if to justify the boys' extreme act, her brutality is amplified by adding in her betrayal of the Jewish cobbler, a note that depends entirely on an audience's knowledge of history outside the boys' limited perspective.
It is these small missteps, these little pieces of emotion that make your heart break instead of jolting the mind, that keep the film from being all it should be. Perhaps that is why the story's shocking ending does not register its full horror.