Son of the White Mare

Son of the White Mare

1981, NR, 86 min. Directed by Marcell Jankovics. Voices by György Cserhalmi, Vera Pap, Gyula Szabó, Ferenc Szalma, Mari Szemes, Szabolcs Tóth.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 21, 2020

Myths, even those of cultures alien to our own, work on instinctual levels. That's true for Son of the White Mare, Hungarian animation master Marcell Jankovics' restored obtuse masterpiece. Within its vibrant, earth-tones frames he free adapts the legend of Fehérlófia, a common story among the peoples and tirbes of the Pannonian Steppe most famously recounted by Hungarian folkloris and poet László Arany. Fehérlófia, also known as Treeshaker, is the strongest man alive, due to being nursed on the milk of his horse mother for seven and seven years. After her death (her child literally suckles her to death), he is reunited with his two brothers, Irontemperer and Stonecrusher. They launch on a quest to kill the gnomes and dragons of the Underworld, to claim their castles and the kidnapped princess they have forced into marriage.

Mostly ignored in its native Hungary, and seemingly rediscovered every decade or so in the West, the latest restoration is immersive and enthralling, an experimental feast for the eyes even if the story itself is more to be felt than truly understood (Jankovics himself reputedly admitted to forgetting parts of his narrative intent). It is undeniably stylistically unique: A mix of expressionism, art deco, and traditional folk and tribal arts, it has points of similarity with the psychedelic cinema of the 1970s - even if Jankovics would likely have recoiled at such a simplification. This is mythology, not third eye visions, and works on iconic levels. The effect is shamanic, like when Diego Rivera fused Mayan and Aztec symbolism into his epic Modernism, but Jankovics was absorbing the less-familar (to American eyes) visions of Scythia and the Pannonian Avars.

When audiences are used to seeing mythological characters rewritten for modern sensibilities (like a certain kinder, gentler God of Thunder), Fehérlófia is an undoubted throwback to a more primal and primordial view of masculinity. A braggadocious bore, he spends much of his time engaged in quite literally Herculean feats of strength, leading his brothers on a series of adventures in which brute force is more important than intellect, and the trio are most successful when unified - usually under the command of their sun god sibling. They're all portrayed in bold colors (also, distinctively for Jankovics, lacking the typical black outlines of most animation, further emphasizing the fluidity of motion, and allowing for constant flow and transformation), indicative of their metaphorical nature. This is myth, not drama, and intended to be absorbed as such. At that level - as an avant garde interpretation of a folk tale - it's a work of engrossing weight, loaded with arcane symbolism around sets of three, fertility, and astrological symbols, and archetypes that would have given Joseph Campbell material for a dozen theses. As a narrative work, it undeniably drags: but then, that's not really its intent. This is a spectacle to be absorbed and analyzed. Find the biggest screen you can, and make your own footnotes.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Films
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
Animated Haruki Murakami adaptation finds his fabulist tendencies

Richard Whittaker, June 2, 2023

The Boogeyman
Can Hollywood just knock it off with the trauma horror?

Matthew Monagle, June 2, 2023

More by Richard Whittaker
Geeky Lifestyle Brand BoxLunch Brings Exclusive Indiana Jones Pop-Up to Austin
Geeky Lifestyle Brand BoxLunch Brings Exclusive Indiana Jones Pop-Up to Austin
Fortune and glory awaits you at Barton Creek Square this weekend

June 1, 2023

Deliciously perverse battle of the sexes plays with lust and power

June 2, 2023


Son of the White Mare, Marcell Jankovics

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle