The story of how Marcell Jankovics’ Son of the White Mare stayed off of U.S. shores for 39 years is almost more interesting than the movie itself, or it would be if any specifics about the “why” behind the delay were readily available. Suffice to say, a recent 4K rehab by distributor and restoration company Arbelos, in partnership with the Hungarian Film Archive, led to a festival run at Fantasia 2019, which subsequently led to a planned March 2020 theatrical run, which was delayed as the confederacy of schmucks in charge decided “America first” meant “first in the world in total COVID-19 cases.”
Fortunes have turned thanks to waves of virtual screenings cropping up all over in lieu of physical screenings, so now audiences with a taste for surrealist 1980s animation can watch Son of the White Mare in its ideal setting: on the couch, at home, stoned out of their gourds. Sober minds can, and should, watch and enjoy Son of the White Mare, of course, but drug-addled minds may find an improved viewing experience, either because the film’s quirks and kinks and perplexities suddenly make more sense, or because those minds will be high as a flock of kites and thus the quirks and kinks and perplexities won’t even register.
Whatever condition you’re in when you watch Son of the White Mare, the movie’s a cultural artifact and a piece of movie history: Jankovics based the plot on a collection of his homeland’s folktales, telling the tale of Treeshaker (György Cserhalmi), a man born of a horse, who suckles at his mother’s teet until he turns 14 years old. Once he hits this milestone, his mom dies, and Treeshaker sets out to find the dragons mother-horse told him of as a boy, who ended the rule of the Forefather and have sunk the world into muted chaos. Along the way, he meets his long lost brothers, Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer (also voiced by Cserhalmi), beats both of them in contests of strength, and convinces them to join him on his quest.
Jankovics spells all of this out as vaguely as he can get away with, meaning just enough to make the point but not enough that viewers can rely on dialogue alone to understand what’s happening and where the film is going. The easiest way to describe Son of the White Mare is “psychedelic,” but that word is a poor substitute for the experience of seeing Jankovics blend colors into images and weave those images into new images, as if his palette is overburdened by sentient paints each spilling over into the others with purpose. There’s design here. Jankovics fills every frame with intention, but the intention requires undivided diligence to grasp, let alone appreciate. Son of the White Mare flies at such a rapid pace that the simplicity of the narrative, which is so much like the mythmaking of so many cultures that even your recollections of 6th grade Latin class should suffice as a framework, explodes into something far more complex.
It helps, at least, that Jankovics airdrops sexual innuendos ranging from uncomfortable to hilarious to regular-strength weird, and that these innuendos function as road signs for waning attentions as they buckle under the film’s shifting gait: Treeshaker administering spankings to his brothers for failing tasks he assigns them, for instance, or shearing a gnome’s beard in retribution for mischief and then turning that beard into a sword. Son of the White Mare’s naughtier illustrations add layers of shock and delight to enhance the absolutely mesmerizing animation scheme: Watching the movie’s scenes flow freely into one another has a rapturous effect that Jankovics wisely disrupts with eroticism, the key to turning Hungarian folklore into his own cinema. Whether that aesthetic is to one’s taste almost feels irrelevant. Son of the White Mare must be seen to be believed, but mostly it just needs to be seen.
Director: Marcell Jankovics
Writer: László György, Marcell Jankovics
Starring: György Cserhalmi, Vera Pap, Gyula Szabó
Release Date: August 21, 2020 (virtual cinemas)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.