Roland Vranik's quietly outraged, scrupulously observant immigration drama The Citizen may unfold in Hungarian, in the streets and flats and bureaucratic offices of Budapest, but its story could be transposed to any American city with just a language swap and a find-replace of some proper nouns. Vranik's film couldn't be more timely in its moral inquiry, but it's timeless in form and technique, a melodrama tempered with a painstaking realism. By foregoing sensationalism, The Citizen becomes both sweeter, in its conjuring of a first kiss and a surprise romance, and also by the end more devastating. Simply put, the lives Vranik puts onscreen are wholly convincing, and the conflicts they face sadly familiar.
Vranik's tale concerns middle-aged Wilson (first-time actor Marcelo Cake-Baly), a political refugee from Guinea-Bissau, and his complex relationships with two women from two different cultures who come to share his small apartment. First is fellow refugee Shirin (Arghavan Shekari), a young Iranian woman who turns up at his door nine months pregnant and fleeing a government committed to deporting her. Then there's Mari (Ágnes Máhr), the age-appropriate Hungarian woman he's hired to tutor him for his citizenship test. She's married, with grown children, but adrift; her face seems to blossom open when Wilson's around.
Together, Wilson and Mari will face bureaucracy, prejudice and their own divergent expectations about what a life between them could look like. Vranik eschews flourishes, telling his story with directness and clarity, though the film is never subtle. But neither are desperate lives or immigration laws. What resonates are the performances, the characters this cast of pros and non-actors fully inhabit, the abundance of complex, revealing interactions.