Natural Light is a war film that is, under several aspects, aimed at a very specific niche audience, the hardcore fans of the films it references and is derived from. It has been widely accused of being unoriginal and “more of the same” as other recent international hungarian hits. Even so, it is an excellent rendition of the war genre with a peculiar shift in perspective.
At a first glance, Natural Light is another Son of Saul. Much like the oscar-winning film by László Nemes, it focuses on a narrow perspective (but does not employ a semi-square 1.37:1 aspect ratio, rather preferring a widescreen) to describe brutal events. What is revolutionary is that the main character belongs to the perpetrators rather than the victims: he is a soldier in the axis army, on the eastern front of WWII, in Latvia, a region well known for the pogroms and brutalities caused by the invading forces. In a way, this film can be best described as a polar opposite of Elem Klimov’s film Come and See, but unlike its soviet counterpart, it avoids the on-screen presence of graphic violence, for which Klimov’s work is well known.
The perspective shift, it must be said, has not the purpose of justifying any of the depicted events. Dénes limits himself at depicting the distressful effects of the massacres on the perpetrators, the “banality of evil”, to quote Hannah Arendt. The main character is an outsider in his own faction, someone who silently detaches from the actions of the collective but who does not openly rebel. Whenever he is allowed to, he avoids violence, thus excluding himself from the logic of aggressivity that pervades the army. As others have pointed out, him being the photographer also adds to a metacinematic quality, transforms him in the double of the director, thus an external observer.
The title refers somewhat to the neutral vision of the events but also to a technical choice, the use of natural light for possibly all the sequences, a trend introduced by The Revenant and that has already influenced other films, such as the italian Il Primo Re. In no way the visual style resembles the aforementioned, the desaturated coloring turns Natural Light into a visual feast of its own, a stunning film from start to finish.
Additionally, Natural Light is an extremely slow burn, with almost no dialogue, even more extreme in this sense than Son of Saul. An element that might dissuade some, but that only adds to the overall quality.
Despite its rather successful awards run, Natural Light has not been selected to compete as the best foreign film for Hungary, for which purpose the much less outstanding horror film Post Mortem was picked. A puzzling choice, considering that the last hungarian oscar win was for a film that is very similar to Dénes’ work.
During a year that has seen several radical and polarizing films, Natural Light feels more traditionally arthouse. The fact that this is a debut film (like Son of Saul was for Nemes) that has already won several awards specifically for its direction makes it even more outstanding and worthwhile of being one of the most satisfying viewing experiences of this year.