Film Review: Katalin Varga

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Berlin International Film Festival, Competition

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BERLIN -- In its first half hour, "Katalin Varga" seems overwhelmed by its portentous sound design (which goes way beyond simple "music") and its overly picturesque long shots of its admittedly gorgeous setting in the Carpathian mountains. It all just seems too much. But once the central drama starts to clarify itself, everything begins to work in tandem to produce a powerful, elemental film. The tense, restrained performance of Hilda Péter, as the film's central character, Katalin Varga, is also superb and could easily lead to a best actress award here at the Berlinale.

Given its provenance in Romania and Hungary, the film may not attract much attention from bigger American distributors, but careful, attentive handling by a boutique firm could lead to modest profits. It should do even better on DVD, and seems poised to become an obvious selection at festivals around the world.

When the story begins, Katalin and her son Orbán (Norbert Tankó) are being brutally kicked out of their house by Katalin's enraged husband, who has just discovered Orbán is not his son. As they make their lonely way across the empty landscape, Katalin decides she needs first to avenge the rape that resulted in the birth of Orbán before anything else in her life can be set right.

One of the most interesting things about the film is director Strickland's decision to deliberately play with its time period.  At first, it feels like we're in the middle of the nineteenth century, especially given the appearance of the impoverished villagers and the fact that Katalin and her son set out on their journey with a horse and wagon. Then, sometime later, cell phones and automobiles appear, and, rather than being jarred, we're gently made to understand that Strickland is trying to suggest something about the primitive and eternal nature of what we're about to see. Still later, we witness a scene of peasants dancing in a fire-lit barn that is utterly timeless.

Strickland also strives to create a highly expressionistic form of realism that is much more emotionally powerful than the standard variety. It takes a while for everything to mesh, but once it does, the film moves toward a profundity that is modest but telling. 

In addition, moral issues are raised along the way as we see Katalin becoming even more vicious than her original attackers. We also come to understand that these same morally reprehensible men are nevertheless complex human beings, like us all, whose beings extend beyond the shameful, evil act perpetrated upon Katalin. Several scenes near the end of the film--for example when Katalin is psychologically tormenting her rapist in the presence of his adoring wife, who knows nothing--are absolutely riveting.

Production company: Libra Film
Cast: Hilda Péter, Tibor Pálffy, Norbert Tankó
Director: Peter Strickland
Screenwriter: Peter Strickland
Producers: Tudor Giurgiu, Oana Giurgiu, Peter Strickland
Director of photography: Márk Gyõri
Music: Steven Stapleton, Geoff Cox
Editor: Mátyás Fekete
Sales: Memento Films International
No rating, 84 minutes