One of the films to which I was most looking forward at this year’s Santa Barbara Film Festival was the Romanian Katalin Varga and I’m very pleased to report that it did not disappoint.
The film has a fascinating (and borderline depressing) production history too involved to recount here, but suffice to say that it is the remarkable debut of writer/director Peter Strickland, who spent much of his twenties as a musician before traveling to Romania in his mid-thirties to make his first feature with entirely local cast and crew in a language with which he was not familiar (NB not quite true – see comment below). Even without this background, however, the result would be extremely impressive.
Katalin has harboured some dark secret for many years which when revealed (not to us, yet) brings shame on her husband and prompts her to leave the village with her son Orbán on a long journey to “pay some men a surprise”. The camera begins by following closely and shakily on her shoulder in classic European art-house style, but the aesthetic is more textured than that: the journey is judiciously punctuated with gorgeous shots of the landscape, idyllic meadows and misty mountains, and DP Márk Györi’s camera captures with equal magic sunlight breaking through the clouds, or the heart-swelling lushness of the forest interior after rain. He also has a splendid way with abstract light compositions, be it a gypsy dance by firelight, a flight across a moonlit bridge or simply sunlight on water (only a direct lift from Meshes of the Afternoon feels intrusive, but forgivable near the end both on thematic grounds and following so much simply-presented and justifiably integrated beauty).
The film won the Silver Bear at Berlin for the acting ensemble (the cast is small) but once again in this festival, it belongs to the central female protagonist (see also: Madeo, La mujer sin piano, Slovenka). Hilda Péter is outstanding, and Strickland plays the smart trick of revealing her only gradually. She first appears with an off-putting sternness to her beautiful angular features beneath the tight peasant’s scarf, and such a thing as hiding her mass of brown wavy hair until some way into the film is terrifically effective. She turns out to be capable of alluring coyness, but by the time she tells her story, in a magnificently controlled scene with her uncomfortable audience captive in a swirling rowing boat, all the bitterness, determination and controlled sorrow which we’ve seen in her eyes meld perfectly and without abandon into a chilling monologue; this leads to an outcome different from that which she had imagined, and an unexpected moral discussion on punishment and responsibility grows naturally out of a horrible sense of shared experience.
The tension of the revenge story and withheld information is further heightened by an excellent minimalist score from Geoffrey Cox and Steven Stapleton (Mr Nurse With Wound), alternating Popol Vuh-ish semi-human chorus drones with flute and percussion, folk guitar and violin, with singing and unexpected electronica (jaunty local ringtones), culminating in a strange clacking percussion that underscores the chirping of birds to splendidly uneasy effect in the tense final section of the film. With a total surefootedness of pace and structure, the film may feel slight at 75 minutes, the focus obsessively narrow and the logic of its ending overly bleak, but within those terms it achieves something approaching perfection.