Fehérlófia (1981) by Marcell Jankovics
Retro Review by Andrew Swafford
Mythology is, by definition, old news. For a story to be elevated to the level of myth, it also must be degraded through endless retellings to the point of being taken for granted. The prevailing myths of American culture--the Biblical and the superheroic--are either too sacred to acceptably be retold in new ways or too ubiquitous and commonplace to really be attention-grabbing. And this is just the status of myths for insiders--save for the small subset of people who geek out about Greek/Roman/Norse mythology, these kinds of stories are generally even less interesting for outsiders. How much does the average American care about Czech mythology? Nigerian mythology? Hungarian?
This problem of tradition and convention is one of the many reasons why Marcell Jankovics's 1981 animated film Fehérlófia is so provocative. Based on ancient Hungarian legends, Fehérlófia tells the story of a warrior named Treeshaker who is born of a horse (the title literally means "son of the white mare," and is often translated as such) and who vows to slay a series of three dragons that have taken control of the universe away from the weather gods. There's a very Seven Samurai-like process of assembling a team with other warriors, a Dante-esque trip to the underworld, and three buxom damsels in distress that get saved along the way. To put it simply, Fehérlófia is the Cambellian Hero's Journey on wheels, and on a plot level, the story couldn't be more well-worn and clichéd. We have beat this horse to death.
However, Jankovics's mare couldn't be more alive. In the film's opening moments, synthesized bass is pumping, what sounds like glass is breaking, wind is roaring, and glimpses of color stream from right to left before the viewer's eyes in a way that is wholly incomprehensible until the full picture is revealed. We see a white horse, but what exactly is happening is still very unclear and abstract due to the film's distinctive animation style, which exclusively utilizes bold, glowing colors, ever-shifting abstract landscapes, minimalist character design, reality-breaking pattern overlays, and wildly fluctuating line movements--all of which add up to an experience which feels profoundly new. To call Fehérlófia a psychedelic film (putting it in the ranks of Fantastic Planet or Yellow Submarine) is a reductive understatement, as the film never feels like its pandering to the druggie crowd or trying to mimic established tropes of psychedelia. Marcell Jancovics, as an animator, fits in no categories and imagines his own visual universe that has to be seen to be believed.
On a surface level, this is what makes Fehérlófia immediately interesting--it's telling an archaic story in an undeniably new way, breathing life into a mythological tale from Jankovics's culture that might otherwise go ignored. However, there are more layers to this lean little 80-minute animation that also make it an interesting revision of Hungarian folklore.
One of the primary concerns of all mythology is fertility--there are countless stories and deities across cultures that somehow explain how humans reproduce and crops grow. The Garden of Eden in Genesis can easily be read as a fertility myth; In Egyptian mythology, the central fertility deity is Isis; The ancient Greeks had Artemis and Dionysus and Pan, among others. Fehérlófia is not a fertility story, it's a hero's journey--but it is absolutely dripping in sexual imagery and innuendo that suggest the deeply rooted nature of sexuality in all origin stories. One of the first distinctly recognizable images in the film, for example, is Treeshaker as an infant exiting his mother's womb (even the title, "Son of the White Mare" seems to insist on reminding the viewer of the protagonist's maternal beginnings), which is weird even without mentioning that he drinks milk from her breast for seven years to build his strength, and the two make their home in a vulva-spaced hollow under a tree that reminds me of the marvelous Pan's Labyrinth.
To cite a few more examples of the slathered-on sexuality in this movie: (1) the mountains that Treeshaker must pass on his way to the underworld are literally made up of the knees of a gigantic huge figure, who moves them to reveal a crotch of geographic proportions, (2) one of the supporting characters has the valuable contents of his stomach consumed by a goblin, who enters him from between his legs while the man lays spread-eagle; when Treeshaker and another companion (who is literally named Ironrubber) hear of this, they punish him by straddling and spanking the character in the most homoerotic way possible, and (3) when Treeshaker has Ironrubber forge him an unbreakable sword, that sword rests directly between his legs for the rest of the film, making the upward-pointing hilt the phallic symbol to end them all. The both covert and oh-so-very-overt sexual gesturing of this film's visuals is exactly the reason why I have zero feminist qualms with the extreme objectification of this movie's aforementioned buxom damsels / femme fatales, who are essentially bare-nipple naked for most of their screen time. It's an erotic flair that is sewn into the very fabric of Treeshaker's story, and feels like an inextricable part of this hero myth as Jankovics has rendered it. If myths are meant to serve as the building blocks for human experience in society, I think it's safe to say that sexuality is a pretty integral and omnipresent part of that experience.
There is much more that can be said of Fehérlófia, from the imaginative character design to the wonderfully symbolic fight sequences in the third act, but I find it obvious that any summation of the way the film looks, breathes, and moves in writing ultimately pales in comparison to just looking at it, which I want to encourage you to do. The film is available in full with English subtitles on Archive.org for your free viewing pleasure. Please check it out, gape in amazement at Jankovic's skill as a visual craftsman, and mourn for the fact that no Region-A home video release has ever existed for the film. I continue to dream that Criterion might get ahold of the thing to continue their slowly-growing library of animated features, but it may never come. In the meantime, be happy that you know about this criminally underseen work of world cinema, and pray that it may live on through word of mouth, like the ancient oral traditions from whence it came.
(PS - in case you're interested, Jankovics later went on to work on two amazing projects: the first was a 160-minute, 15-part animated history of Western civilization called The Tragedy of Man that took 25 years to complete but can be watched on iTunes right now; the second was The Emperor's New Groove.)