A story of unyielding cruelty set during the waning months of World War II, “The Notebook” offers no quarter. The filmmakers’ fine craft and isolated instances of cinematic beauty can’t redeem the ubiquitous malice they depict.
The Hungarian-set “The Notebook” details several months in the lives of 13-year-old twin boys. It begins with the children’s brief reunion with their soldier father. Before he leaves them and their mother to return to war, he gives his sons a notebook.
“Boys,” he says seriously, “write down everything that happens to you in this notebook.”
The boys travel by train with their mother to the countryside. She thinks they’ll be safer there than in the city.
Those who haven’t read “Le Grand Cahie,” the 1986 novel by Hungarian writer Agota Kristof upon which the film is based, are in for jolting. For instance, the character played Piroska Molnár, known simply as Grandmother, doesn’t welcome her daughter and grandsons.
“No news for 20 years!” Grandmother yells. The boys’ tearful mother leaves them with her estranged mother anyway, without asking permission.
“I’ll teach you!” Grandmother says as she slams her front door on her grandsons. “Stay outside, bastards!”
The local townspeople call this bitter, alcoholic old woman “The Witch.” As for her grandsons, she earns the title.
Hungarian director János Szász directed “The Notebook” from a screenplay co-written by himself, Kristof and Andras Szekér.
There’s a brutal purity in Szász’s storytelling and the boys’ unforgiving lives. Szász allows his principals to experience almost no kindness. Their grandmother beats them, townspeoples beat them. They don’t know why. Playing the twins, László Gyémánt and András Gyémánt make a quick, credible transition from normal boys to young monsters.
The story’s cruelty doesn’t discriminate. It applies equally to the boys, the town’s police chief and its Jews. Nazis herd the Jews through the streets while townspeople insult their former neighbors.
Szász’s unflinching storytelling ethic parallels the boys’ high standard for their journal writing. “We have a rule to decide if our writing is good or bad,” they write. “It has to be true.”
There’s much to be admired in truthful, fearless storytelling. But if the results are as bleak and heartless as what happens in “The Notebook,” nothing is gained. There are survivors, but the film is more unforgiving, unrewarding death march than a story of survival.