‘On Body and Soul’ Teaches Us About Love and Learning to Feel

Hungarian film “On Body and Soul opens on the intimacy of two wild deer nuzzling against a stark winter backdrop of snow, forest and a gentle breeze. There it lingers until it abruptly cuts to the soulful eyes of cattle crowded in a Hungarian slaughterhouse. A film rich with details and process, “On Body and Soul” is a love story that has been nominated this year for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

“On Body and Soul” is Ildikó Enyedi’s first feature film in 18 years. It has been over 25 years since the release of her exquisite “My Twentieth Century.” Shot in black and white with an eye to silent film, it won the Golden Camera Award at Cannes.

In Enyedi’s newest film, Maria is the newly hired quality inspector at the slaughterhouse. As played by Alexandra Borbély, she is a fragile child-like beauty who makes harsh, unwavering judgments. She approximates a Hungarian Sheldon Cooper without the sitcom silliness. Her fellow workers reject her. She sees a Child Psychologist, rejecting his suggestion that she move on to one more appropriate for adults.

Endre (Géza Morcsányl) is the general plant supervisor. Much older than Maria, he tries to be kind and just to those under him, but life experience has made him cynical and prone to rash judgments. He avoids transparency and emotional intimacy.

A petty theft takes place; the plant hires a psychologist to interview all employees in order to root out the guilty party.  During these interviews, it is revealed that Maria and Endre both dream of the same deer, the deer we saw at the beginning of the movie.

“On Body and Soul” is a love story of two lonely individuals learning to share, first the details of their dreams and then finally themselves. Sex is an emotional goal and not a perk as in so many contemporary love stories. Since Maria has the farthest to come, most of the movie centers on her.  Her progress is brutally stymied with almost fatal results by Endre’s obstinacy.   

Poignantly directed and shot, “On Body and Soul” resonates with rich details. The slaughterhouse is a frigid place whose deadly ambience takes a toll on the employees. That mileu is counterbalanced with the romanticized deer that fill the dreams of Maria and Endre.

Maria uses little objects, first salt and pepper shakers and then Lego figures to re-envision her previous encounter with Endre. It’s a child-like exercise where she can speak in private what she was incapable of communicating in Endre’s presence.

The continuing use of Laura Marling’s “What He Wrote” is a haunting musical theme to the emotional drama.

In the end, “On Body and Soul” is a profound love story about obstacles to intimacy and the process to reach it. Director Ildikó Enyedi returns to filmmaking with an emotionally powerful examination of the joys of intimacy and why few of us have the tools to achieve it.

On Body and Soul” releases Feb. 2 on Netflix.