csa2005 is shaping up as the year of the great foreign film. Which is sort of ironic, since most of the great foreign films I’ve been seeing hit their home countries at least a year ago and are only just now getting some play in the States.

But who cares when a movie comes from if it’s great? And the film Kontroll, the debut of Nimród  Antal, is great. It’s set among the weird world of ticket takers on the Hunagrian subway, and the strange series of seeming suicides that have been occurring on the tracks. One part comedy, one part thriller, Kontroll is a film that’s tough to pin down but easy to like.

It opens with an announcement by someone purporting to be from the Budapest Metro, explaining that the film is fiction and that the real ticket takers are nothing like what you’re about to see. Antal has said that the Metro made him put that there – I doubt it, but if they did, it was a stroke of fortuitous luck, as it starts the film with just the right mixture of weirdness and comedy, setting the stage for everything that’s about to happen.

Bulcsú heads a team of ticket takers – a motley crew that includes an old man, a narcoleptic, a skeezy horndog and a newbie. They walk through the trains on the Metro, asking to see people’s tickets – the subway runs on an honor system. But often the people on the trains want nothing to do with the ticket takers, and madness ensues, from fist fights to a kid armed with what seems to be a can of foam pepper spray or something.

But Bulcsú has a deep secret – he’s been sleeping in the subway. And he’s the only person to have seen the strange figure who might be behind the rash of subway deaths – reported as suicides, but really pushings. And this figure wears a familiar sweatshirt.

What makes Kontroll really work, besides the stylized filmmaking (there’s not one shot of the film above ground. If you were a metaphor-readin’ man, which Antal surely wants you to be, you would see this as the hell where our characters are trapped, yearning for salvation above. And beyond the fact that the film is stylized like all get out, it runs faster than the Metro trains (and outracing those is a pastime for our ticket taking heroes), but it never feels rushed) is the ensemble of ticket takers who work with Bulcsú. The film is at parts sort of like Meatballs meets Office Space – our hero team of slob ticket takers is in a rivalry with a snob team of ticket takers, plus we get to understand the hell of their working day. The actors bring humor and humanity to their roles, filling out each character when it would have been easy to play them each as just jokes.

It’s Sándor Csányi who wins, though. As Bulcsú he is a perfect leading man, a kind of Bill Murray with looks. Confident, cool and yet confused, he meets a girl dressed in a bear suit who may or may not be his ticket out of the subway. Their little love story is an intriguing note in the cacophony of genres that Antal manages to somehow make listenable.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Kontroll is how foreign it isn’t. Sure, everybody speaks another language in the film, but the pacing and style is entirely western. Antal, who was actually born in America, certainly watched a lot of Tarantino and Fincher. His ticket takers talk like mobsters in a Tarantino film, while his subway looks like I Am Jack’s Metro. But he does what great artists do – he synthesizes these influences into something completely his own.

The ending of Kontroll is one of those brain scratchers that feels like it maybe isn’t giving you all the info you need to figure it out. Some audiences will find this annoying, for me it fit in perfectly with the subtle weirdness of the proceedings. Everything about the film feels just a little bit off – even the scenes that aren’t obviously being funny or creepy just seem left of the center of reality. But again, it’s a testament to the skill of Antal that he can take this warped vision of the world and populate it with characters who, while they fit right in, feel like fully realized human beings.

9.0 out of 10