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DIR: Peter Strickland
What’s It All About?
Katalin Varga (Hilda Peter) has been keeping a secret from her husband and the other people living in her small Romanian village; 11 years ago she was raped, and her son Orban (Norbert Tanko) is the product of that rape. When this secret is discovered she leaves her village, her son in tow, and crosses the country by horse and cart, as there are a couple of men she needs to pay a surprise visit to.
Why Haven’t You Seen It?
Though Katalin Varga is the debut of a British filmmaker, the dialogue is entirely in Romanian and Hungarian, which, along with the slow burning, non-visceral nature of the film and the small release afforded it by Artificial Eye, is likely why it never gained a big profile, despite great reviews.
Why Should You See It?
The rape revenge film is a fascinating sub genre, and has been responsible for some of the hardest hitting, nastiest and most brutal films ever made (I Spit on Your Grave comes to mind), to say nothing of some of the least subtle (see Handgun, among others). Katalin Varga is an intriguing take on the genre not despite but because it shuns these traits. This is a quiet, considered, morally complex film, which asks hard questions and resists easy answers.
The film centres around an outstanding performance from Hilda Peter, a first time film actress who came to this role with just a little stage work behind her. She’s in practically every shot of the film, often in close up, and she seems to instinctively understand film acting, making tiny adjustments, flickers of expressions (or the determination to NOT express an emotion in a key moment) tell us things that would otherwise take reams of clunky dialogue. This is all especially evident in her manipulation of her first target; a man named Gergely who she picks up in a pub, her outward appearance designed to lead him on, but what’s behind the eyes is what tells the most; the focus, the anger, everything she’s holding in check.
Even more extraordinary are the series of scenes after Katalin reaches her target; Antal (Tibor Palffy), and finds him a happily married farmer, apparently a fine man, and one who immediately bonds with Orban. The performances are both perfectly judged but it’s the way that the film, without saying it out loud, engages with the question of how we define ourselves – is a man more than the worst thing he’s ever done – that really makes the second half of the film such a troubling and interesting thing. Here, writer/director Peter Strickland also plays with the conventions of the revenge film to an even greater degree. You could say that Katalin, by accident or design, it’s never clear, gets her revenge, but does she even want or need it anymore?
Made with a £25,000 inheritance, in just 18 days, on 16mm film, Katalin Varga looks better than most, if not all, of the $100million blockbusters I’ve seen this year. Peter Strickland’s camerawork is often handheld, but never succumbs to that self conscious shaky-cam trend which tends to shake me right out of whatever movie I’m watching. He’s got a great sense of place, echoing Badlands in the way he makes the scenery itself (especially the forest, which for Katalin signals threat and fear) a part of Katalin and Orban’s journey, almost a character in and of itself. With just three lamps to work with, Strickland and DP Márk Györi make effective use of shadow in many of the interior scenes; a literal darkness often encroaching on Katalin just as her own actions are catching up to her.
Katalin Varga, even at just 80 odd minutes, is a slow burning film, but everything about it from the performances to the camerawork, to the low, menacing, rumble that often serves as score, draws you inexorably into the story and hooks you up until the shocking conclusion. This a great film, and a great debut from Peter Strickland. I can’t wait to see what this impressive British auteur does next.
In the pivotal scene of the film, Katalin takes a boat ride with Antal and his wife, and tells them in graphic, yet detatched, detail, about her rape. The performances from Hilda Peter, relating this difficult event, and from Tibor Palffy, as Antal realises what she’s saying, are nothing short of brilliant, and Strickland’s staging is low key, but unnerving. A mini masterpiece in the middle of a great film.
How Can You See It?
The UK DVD from Artificial Eye is excellent. It boasts a strong transfer, good subtitles and a solid selection of extras. There is no US release as far as I can tell.
I haven’t decided yet.