Starring Marcell Nagy. In Hungarian and German with English subtitles. Rated 14A. Opens Friday, February 3, at the Cinemark Tinseltown

The young protagonist of Fateless is not exactly without a destination in life. The title of the autobiographical novel from which this was adapted-by its Nobel Prize-winning author, Imre Kertész-actually translates as Fatelessness. The distinction between the two is blurry, and such grey areas are exactly what the movie is about.

Like so many before it, this Holocaust saga begins with an ordinary middle-class family trying to sort through narrowing options as more Jews are being deported to parts unknown. Being a nominal ally of Nazi Germany, Hungary was comparatively less brutal to its Jewish population, which suffered most in the countryside until a German-backed coup introduced even harsher measures in early 1944.

The main people we meet-charged with delivering much of the expository dialogue that can make this material tedious, at least to those already overly familiar with the bleak territory-constitute the Kí¶ves family. This includes a kind, factory-owning father (János Bán), his sturdy, younger wife (Judith Schell), and 14-year-old Gyuri (unforgettable newcomer Marcell Nagy), an inquisitive Budapest high-schooler with frizzy hair and an unflappable attitude. The long-faced lad is seemingly unperturbed by his yellow star and the indignities that follow, all part of "the common fate of all Jews", as one glum relative puts it. Gyuri's mildly shrugging, unfailingly polite approach somehow helps him survive when he is suddenly snatched off an out-of-town bus and sent to one vicious camp environment after another.

The 140-minute tale was directed by Lajos Koltai, in his first move away from cinematography. Koltai, 60 this year, shot many István Szabó films, including Mephisto and Sunshine, and it's not surprising that he frames Fateless in mostly pictorial terms. The early scenes offer a sepia-tinged warmth, but any hint of colour is gradually bleached from the screen as Gyuri gets pulled further into increasingly wintry visions of hell.

By the time he leaves Auschwitz for Buchenwald, the images are dominated by unforgiving greens, greys, and blues. And the scenes subsequently reach their peak in a series of very short, white-out vignettes that-mercifully, for the viewer-reduce the death-camp experience to isolated flashes of horror, sorrow, and dull animal survival. There is also an odd sort of beauty, supported by an almost too lyrical score by Ennio Morricone, along with a tone of sheer resignation that reaches for the religious-albeit of a highly existential denomination.

The most memorable sequence comes when prisoners of an unnamed provincial camp (one where Jewish kapos do most of the beating) are forced to stand all night after some escapees are recaptured. Koltai shoots this from above, and when the men in striped pyjamas start swaying in the rain, it's impossible to tell the difference between prayer, fatigue, and madness. In the end, any such distinctions also dissolve and Gyuri's fate is, frankly, to stop caring. That is the point at which this most holy of Holocaust films captures a very rare streak of human emotion: hope, without the slightest taint of illusion.