Saturday, October 27, 2012

Katalin Varga

Katalin Varga has a fascinating (and 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 with an inheritance to Romania to make his first feature with entirely local cast and crew, in a language with which he was not familiar. Even without this background, the result would be highly impressive.

For over ten years, Katalin has harboured some dark secret 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 visual aesthetic grows in texture: the journey is generously 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, but it belongs really to the central female protagonist. 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 a tight peasant’s scarf; thus 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 fought-down 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 from 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, and with singing and unexpected electronica (jaunty local ringtones); it culminates in a strange, clacking percussion (or creaking rope) that underscores the chirping of birds to splendidly uneasy effect in the tense final section of the film. It may feel slight at 75 minutes, the focus obsessively narrow, and the logic of its ending overly bleak, but within those terms Strickland achieves something really remarkable, thanks to a captivating central performance, transcendent camerawork, and an impressive control of structure and pace.

d/sc Peter Strickland p Oana Giurgiu, Tudor Giurgiu, Peter Strickland ph Márk Györi ed Matyas Fekete m Geoffrey Cox, Stuart Stapleton cast Hilda Péter, Norbert Tankó, László Mátray, Roberto Giacomello, Tibor Pálffy, Melinda Kántor, Sebastian Marina
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