I wish that I’d seen this film when I was more alert and less pre-occupied. I think that I saw something astonishing, but I’m sure I missed some nuances.
The story is very simple, but begins with a flashforward – or possibly it begins ‘now’ and then proceeds as a flashback for half the film’s short (82 mins) running time. Katalin Varga is the mother of a ten year-old boy in Transylvania – the district in the Carpathians that was once part of the Hungarian empire but since 1918 has been part of Romania. Most of the actors in the film are ethnic Hungarians living in Romania. With an English writer-director and Slovaks as well as Romanians and Hungarians, eventually produced by Libra Films from Romania and distributed by a French company Memento, this is a co-operative enterprise – even if some malicious parties have criticised director Peter Strickland for stirring up enmities between Romanians and Hungarians.
When the ‘secret’ behind Katalin’s son’s birth eventually emerges via gossip, her husband throws her out of the house and she takes her son Orbán, telling him that they are going to visit his grandmother. They travel by horse and cart into the mountains and Katalin becomes an ‘avenging angel’ as she seeks out those responsible for her current predicament.
Beautifully shot on 16mm in stunning landscapes, the film is a visual treat. I was reminded at times of the beauty of the Turkish film Times and Winds but the real link is to the fabulous films of Miklós Jancsó, who is himself from Transylvania. I’ve only seen a couple of his famous 1960s films – both in black and white – but the images of flower meadows, valleys, plains and rivers has stayed with me. The visual splendour of the landscapes in Katalin Varga is complemented by an extraordinary soundtrack which mixes Hungarian and Romanian folksongs with avant-garde electronic music by Steven Stapleton and his group Nurse with Wound and Geoff Cox. The effect is quite startling and at times like a horror or science fiction film. I haven’t seen most of Tarkovsky’s later films and I wonder if there is any similarity?
The performances are very good, especially Hilda Péter as Katalin. A theatre actor with no previous film experience, she has a striking face – strong and attractive but not conventionally beautiful. I think she is going to be a star. Tibor Pálffy as the man Katalin is seeking also has a remarkable presence.
I guess this can only be described as an art film, but I hope that this doesn’t put people off. Get into the right mood and it will entrance you, though I wouldn’t recommend it as a Friday night date movie. It’s a traditional form – a revenge tale that ultimately leads to the angel consumed by her quest and becoming bad. It takes place in a world that seems to have changed little since medieval times. The occasional interruption by a mobile ‘phone ringtone and a couple of modern teenagers who warn Katalin that she is ‘taking the road to hell’ stand out as modern intrusions into an ancient tale. I recommend the film highly.
Nominated for the Golden Bear, Berlin 2009, Silver Bear Winner for Sound Design.
Cineuropa Film Focus (including interview with the director, Peter Strickland)
Press Pack from Memento (in English).
The Artificial Eye trailer: