Jettisoning the jittery sex-and-drugs adolescent hijinks of his first three features in favor of a technically lush yet thinly plotted back-to-nature fable, Hungarian helmer Kornel Mundruczo’s long-gestating “Delta” is a beautifully atmospheric vessel that will seem infinitely deep to some and chafingly dry to others. In competition at Cannes, pic is sure to be in demand at high-profile fests but will strain for sales beyond the most enlightened of arthouse havens and specialty disc labels.
Story resembles an expanded version of “Shortlasting Silence,” helmer’s incest-themed contribution to the 2005 portmanteau feature “Lost and Found.” Disheveled and hirsute, a taciturn local (Felix Lajko) returns to his rural village on a spectacularly wild delta and finds his mother (Lili Monori) and sister (Mundruczo muse Orsi Toth) working together in the grungy local pub with mom’s latest husband (Sandor Gaspar).
The young man — all are nameless — decides to take over his late father’s dilapidated hut on the shore, and is soon joined by sis. The pair wordlessly undertake laborious construction of a lengthy pier and a rough-hewn house on stilts, uniting in sweat and silence. They eventually become lovers, with rejection by the family and ridicule from the coarse villagers leading to tragedy.
Nobody talks much, and in truth, the story is a scaffold on which Mundruczo hangs leisurely visual meditations on the wild flora and fauna surrounding and engulfing his protags. Most striking visual motif is an omnipresent turtle, thought by sis to be their reincarnated father. An obvious spiritual inspiration is Magyar iconoclast Bela Tarr — listed here as a script consultant — though in-the-know mavens will find echoes of man-vs.-nature pics from “Days of Heaven” to the first reels of “There Will Be Blood.”
Lajko is refreshingly average, though his unmemorable face and constant downward gaze are emotionally off-putting. Toth is magnetic, and her rape at the hands of her thuggish stepfather, filmed in a single distant take, is fearless.
Tech package is magnificent, with Matyas Erdely’s expansive images, lensed on the Romanian Danube, joining the complex sound mix and violinist Lajko’s rich score in almost operatic splendor; a high tracking shot of boats in a funeral procession is nothing short of breathtaking. Pic shows no traces of disruption caused by the death of original male lead Lajos Bertok from natural causes during production, and is presented in memoriam to him.