Emphasis on empathy: A love letter to Márta Mészáros’ Adoption

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Anna comes to stay with Kata for a few days.

Anything that invites us to look at the world through another’s eyes activates and exercises our ability to empathize with that person. People often confuse this term with sympathy, which comprises a feeling of sorrow or pity for another. We feel sympathy in our minds, but we feel empathy, the ability to take on another’s emotions as your own, in our bodies. Film facilitates empathy; Most of the time, we feel the sensation in ripples—a teary eye when a person breaks another’s heart, a small flash of fear when a character has a brush with danger. We concentrate on the story, the action, and thus inadvertently bury those empathetic feelings in subconsciousness. Sometimes, though, we feel the sensation in waves.

For me, Márta Mészáros’ Adoption (1975) crashed over me in a wave. In this Hungarian black and white film, 43-year-old factory worker “Kata” (Katalin Berek) desperately wants a baby. When her married lover “Jóska” (László Szabó) rejects the idea of having one together, Kata looks into adoption. During this time, she grows close to the orphaned teen “Anna” (Gyöngyvér Vigh), who wants to leave the orphanage and marry her love “Sanyi” (Péter Fried). 

Though both Kata and Anna have loved— and continue to love—the men in their lives, the heart of Adoption lies in the love they feel for each other. Theirs is a love that emanates warmth, that breeds comfort. It reminds me so vividly of my childhood memories of winters with my family. I feel the cold of this Hungarian winter in the village just as I felt the cold of winters past at home in Pennsylvania. I feel the warmth of Kata’s house, of the tea she makes for Anna, of the love they exchange, just as I did the hot chocolate that my mother used to make us and understood that I was loved. Mészáros makes me feel this warm and comforting love in my body. It does not demand to be felt but simply exists, gently yet firmly.

This warm, unassuming love contrasts starkly with Kata’s love for Jóska. Here Mészáros invites us to experience a love tinged with pain. It is the last stubborn ember of a passion long faded. Kata, initially, does not recognize Jóska’s mistreatment of her. Or maybe she recognizes it but has resigned herself to it. In what might be the most affecting, heartbreaking scene of the film, Kata waits at a restaurant for Jóska, who does not come. Tears begin to well up in the eyes of a face otherwise unchanged. Anna, who has been sitting close by, sees Kata’s pain and kisses her forehead, and wipes away a tear. Gently, she tells Kata that it isn’t right for their relationship to operate on his time alone: “You ought to leave him.” Kata closes her eyes and opens them slowly, Anna puts her hand on her shoulder, and Kata leans her head against Anna’s.

The actors in this film convey the gradual shift from one emotion to another so deftly. When the tears appear, I feel the steady flow of Kata’s disappointment and heartbreak flood my own senses. The love she so freely gives Jóska is met with coldness and disrespect. Her love is selfless, while his is selfish. He wants his family, but he wants her too, yet will not be an emotional support to her in turn. In a later scene where his wife expresses a desire to work, Kata says that the factory is hiring. As Kata turns away from the camera, we get a look at the hope shining in the wife’s eyes. When Jóska says no, that “there’s plenty to do here,” we see that hope drain from her face. “That’s true, there’s plenty to do here,” she concedes. It’s as if a person sleeping has finally dared to stir, only to be put back under the covers, unchanged.

Kata cries as she realizes that Jóska is not coming.

It is the quelling of this hope, this happiness, that echoes so fully in our own hearts because we feel the finality of something extinguished. When Jóska doesn’t come, Kata feels her heartbreak so earnestly that we can see it play out across her face. This love is pain. And then there’s Anna, a force of warm and comforting love, who has come not to stifle said pain, but to simply be there as it crashes over Kata, taking its course. The characters give their emotions space to be felt because they know—and we know—that trying to stop them is futile.

Scenes like this fascinate me by their ability to captivate me. Simple, small gestures evoke love, tenderness, and affection. There is such a delicate beauty in these long, close shots where all you need is to look into a character’s welling eyes to feel their pain, their love, as your own. The tightness with which one squeezes the other’s shoulder seems to contain all the love in the world. As a writer, I have always been compelled by the way that words can express love, feeling. But this, the silence of physical touch, is perhaps even more spellbinding in the weight it gives to a feeling. And suddenly, a hand on a shoulder or the tear rolling down one’s cheek is enough to melt you. 

Though I feel Kata’s pain, I also feel her joy. After realizing that Jóska isn’t coming, Anna proposes the two go out to dinner. As they sit down and begin chatting, Kata smiles a smile that breathes a gentle happiness. The two laugh together, and later at home Anna takes a shower. Lovingly, Kata dries her hair with a towel, and I am reminded of the affection my own mother has always given me so freely. Kata would love to take in Anna as her own, but Anna wants to marry Sanyi, who she loves dearly. During their wedding, though, we see an angry Sanyi shake Anna vigorously. We don’t know exactly what they’re arguing about, but we cannot ignore a hint of menace in Sanyi’s small display of violence. I am unsettled and worried for Anna. It feels like one of those winter mornings when you’re safely nestled under your covers. But you must get out of bed to start the day, though the feeling of your feet touching the cold floor makes you want nothing more than to run back to the safety of your bed. I want nothing more than for Anna to run back to the safety of Kata.

At the film’s end, when Kata finally takes home her newly adopted baby, we again feel her unassuming happiness as our own. And I find myself thinking about all the ways in which we demonstrate love. Kata and Anna communicate theirs with simple gestures and a clarity that is both refreshing and captivating. I think about myself, at the ways I’ve shown and been shown love. I have a memory of a family trip when I sat next to my brother on a long bus ride. As I grew sleepy, he offered his shoulder for me to lay my head on. Even though it caused him discomfort to support my weight for so long, he bore it for me. When asked what love looks like, this moment has always been the first image to come to mind. I think now the question may also bring forth the image of Anna’s hand on Kata’s shoulder, of the two of them together.

© Roza M. Melkumyan (9/26/20) FF2 Media

Anna comforts Kata.

Featured Photo: Kata (left) and Anna (right) get ready for bed.

Photo Credits: Magda B Müller

Tags: Adoption, FF2 Media, Márta Mészáros, Roza Melkumyan, TCM, Turner Classic Movies, WomenMakeFilm

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As a member of the FF2 Media team, Roza writes features and reviews and coaches other associates and interns. She joined the team as an intern herself during her third year of study at New York University. There she individualized her major and studied narrative through a cultural lens and in the mediums of literature, theatre, and film. At school, Roza studied abroad in Florence and London, worked as a Resident Assistant, and workshopped a play she wrote and co-directed. Since graduating, she spent six months in Spain teaching English and practicing her Spanish. Most recently, she spent a year in Armenia teaching university English as a Fulbright scholar. Her love of film has only grown over the years, and she is dedicated to providing the space necessary for female filmmakers to prosper.
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