Grade: C

Anyone who loves old-fashioned soap opera should embrace Eva Gardos’ big-hearted but schmaltzy picture about an infant girl left behind by her family as they escape communist Hungary for America, raised by a loving peasant family, and then brought to America to be reunited with her real parents. She finds the transition a difficult one, however, and after growing up returns to Hungary to find “closure” by reconnecting with her “foster” parents and discovering the circumstances that led her real mother and father to flee eastern Europe in the first place.

There’s obviously a lot in this semi-autobiographical story to tug at the heartstrings, and Gardos exploits every opportunity. But the result is more like a sprawling television mini-series than a theatrical film; you watch the earnest, rather sluggish piece mosey along, admiring the period detail created on a small budget and some of the performances but always aware how totally manipulative the whole affair is. Ultimately even the title of “An American Rhapsody” is less than the soaring ode to freedom it’s striving to be. And by its close the tale’s emphasis on the chasm which has developed between the now-teenaged protagonist and her overprotective mom, followed by their eventual reconciliation, has become all too reminiscent of Fanny Hurst novels and Ross Hunter sudsers. Like last year’s “East-West,” it cheapens the power of the narrative by using techniques far more appropriate to lesser material.

The first twenty minutes of the picture are probably its best. In a black-and-white, subtitled prologue, we see Peter (Tony Goldwyn) and Margit (Nastassja Kinski) attempt the dangerous crossing of the border into Austria with their older daughter, leaving angelic Suzanne behind with her grandmother Helen (Agi Banfalvy), who’s to see to the child’s separate transport to the west. Unfortunately, while the trio’s escape is successful (as is their application in Vienna for a U.S. visa; it should be noted that here the picture switches to color, a rather unsubtle way of suggesting the change in atmosphere on the other side of the Iron Curtain), Helen fails: she’s put into a prison camp, but not before seeing to Suzanne’s placement with a loving rural couple, Teri (Zsuzsa Czinkoczi) and Jeno (Balazs Galko), who raise her as their own. Before long the girl is a bright-eyed, freckle-faced 6-year old (Kelly Endresz Banlaki), gamboling about in so idyllic setting that it incongruously makes Red Hungary resemble something akin to a rustic paradise. Margit’s letter-writing campaign, combined with the thaw following Stalin’s death, eventually leads to Suzanne being brought to America under Red Cross auspices (Helen actually takes her by subterfuge from Teri and Jeno). Before long the little girl has grown into a sulky, near-delinquent teen (Scarlett Johansson), who chafes under the control of rigid Margit. When the relationship between mother and daughter reaches a low point, Suzanne persuades Peter to allow her to return to Hungary. There she renews contact with Teri and Jeno, who’ve been forced off their farm into Budapest by the still-repressive government, and learns to appreciate her mother’s courage by getting to know her grandmother. She returns to the U.S., and her mother’s arms, wiser than her years.

This story obviously means a lot to Gardos, and she tells it with sincerity, if without the subtlety that would have given it real distinction. Though the budget was obviously modest, she also succeeds in making the period settings of postwar Europe and 1950s America reasonably convincing. She secures, too, a nicely restrained, self-effacing performance from Goldwyn, as well as well as excellent supporting turns from Czinkoczi and Galko; and in Banlaki she’s fortunate to have found a lovable urchin whose smile will dazzle sympathetic audiences (especially females). She also keeps everything good-natured and innocuous for older viewers: when one of the big jokes involves her older sister’s instructing the newly-arrived Suzanne in English by telling her that an earthy word not used in polite company means “good” with reference to food, and the kid repeats it in a crowd–a gag that was old-hat in the 1950s, its setting here–you know she’s incapable of the slightest indiscretion.

Unhappily, she can’t do much with her female leads. Kinski, with her carefully coiffed hair and her stilted style, resembles a clone of Hedy Lamarr. And Johansson is oddly stiff and uncommunicative, both as a troubled teenager and a wide-eyed tourist. Their failure leaves a hole at the very center of this “Rhapsody,” which would have seemed a maudlin, musty composition even back in the fifties.