Review: Chuchotage (Short Film)

3.5 stars

I’m embarrassed to say that my foreign language skills aren’t very good. In fact despite my constant attempts at speaking the local language when I’m overseas, I’m one of those holidaymakers who make local people fervently wish we weren’t always being told to “have a go”.

So I’ve always been particularly impressed with interpreters and translators, particular those people doing it live, while the person they are interpreting is still speaking (chuchotage is the Hungarian term for this).

Particularly if they’re translating something as dull as “Environment-effectological mechanisms of ammonia-based condensers” (my apologies if that’s the title of your PhD).

This film of the same name follows two Hungarian interpreters attending a very dull conference in Prague, attempting to alleviate their boredom first with noughts and crosses and then by tracking down the one Hungarian they are apparently interpreting for.

Soon they fix on one attendee, a beautiful woman who actually seems to be responding to their words as they move from facts about dishwashers to telling her, over their voice line, how she makes them feel.

Director Barnabás Tóth’s film has been shortlisted for the live action short film Oscar, and this is one time I can say I’m ahead of the game. I first saw it last autumn when I was a judge on the short film section of the Fish Eye Film Festival.

It did extremely well, winning several awards including best actor for Pál Göttinger, best editing, best screenplay and best short film.

I enjoyed it at the time, though I have to say that rewatching it now I got a lot more from it. The beauty (and wit) is in the detail in this film, the little touches you can easily miss on a first viewing: the camera panning across the back of the hall, each interpreting booth containing two translators, already a bit bored, eating sweets, putting on make up, gesticulating over a tedious introduction.

The performances are excellent, the characters very deftly drawn; the dialogue between young András (Géza Takács) and the older, bearded Pál (Pál Göttinger), and their comic timing, is spot on. (I also learned a lot about the history of energy ratings on kitchen appliances.)

Chuchotage also won best production design at the Fish Eye Festival, and you can see why. Anyone who has ever been to a works conference, or had a job that combined extreme difficulty with boredom, will recognise both the setting and the ways in which people try to liven up their day. There’s that perfect sense of ennui one gets as another dull industry event comes around where the chairs are too hard and the room is too hot and the talks are too dull.

Chuchotage is a story about two men finding their voices when mostly they’ve been mouthpieces for other people. This is the real them: and while András turns out to be over-familiar, leery and intrusive, Pál’s own words, when he finds them, are poetry. Bad poetry, but still poetry.

András’s comments and their assumptions that it’s okay to speak to a woman like this in a work setting are an issue. It only focuses on the protagonists’ feelings while the woman (Andrea Osvárt) is the silent object of their unasked for affection, and intrusion. In some ways that’s the point (you’ll see why if you watch it) but at some point you have to look past their comedic fumbling and bumbling (and they are a funny pairing) at what they’re doing.

The ending is easy to guess but really the joy – and the sadness – is in the journey, the banter between two bored men with difficult jobs and the decisions they make when life finally starts to look a little more interesting.