'Katalin Varga'

Stark and archaic story of vindictive journey of wronged woman.

The taste of revenge is not exactly sweet in “Katalin Varga,” the strong debut feature of British helmer Peter Strickland. Stark and archaic story of the vindictive journey of a wronged woman and her son is set in contempo Transylvania, but is infused with archetypes that go back to the early days of storytelling. The novice helmer is fully in command of the material and the pic is always engaging, despite the obvious direction in which it’s headed. Pic has already sold to many European territories in the wake of its Berlin screening.

Film was shot over several years in the Hungarian-speaking part of Romanian Transylvania, without any production company onboard until post-production. Despite the fact he doesn’t speak either Hungarian or Romanian, Strickland shows a real flair for painting a picture of the region, and the thesping by local theater actors feels authentic throughout.

Katalin Varga (Hilda Peter) decides it’s time to face the demons of her past when her husband (Laszlo Matray) discovers their son Orban (Norbert Tanko) is not his. Together with her child, she sets out to find the man who raped her 11 years earlier — Orban’s real father.

With mother and son traveling by horse-drawn cart through the green fields of Transylvania, the pic visually underlines the shift from a contempo tale into something more elemental. It’s a decision that feels appropriate, since Katalin’s real destination is revenge, and her character, about whom nothing is known that is not directly relevant to the story, is an ageless archetype. Treatment is reminiscent of Kornel Mundruczo’s recent Cannes title “Delta,” though the revenge theme makes “Varga” far more accessible.

Things become complicated when Katalin first runs into Gegerly (Roberto Giacomello), the rapist’s accomplice, whom she seduces — he doesn’t recognize her — and then exacts her revenge. Strickland, an economical storyteller, shows the aftermath in a single, two-second shot.

Katalin is disturbed by the fact that Orban’s father (Tibor Palffy) turns out to be a happily married man, and her conversations with the man’s wife (Melinda Kantor), one with him present, are among the pic’s highlights, exploring the gray area between hatred and forgiveness in just a few words and exchanged glances.

Lensing on 16mm by Mark Gyori and sound design by regular Bela Tarr collaborator Gyorgy Kovacs create a vivid picture of the region that is both specific and timeless. Monotonous score won’t win any prizes for originality but does cast an ominous shadow over the film.

Katalin Varga

Romania

Production

A Libra Film, Peter Strickland production, in association with Hai-Hui Entertainment. (International sales: Memento Films, Paris.) Produced by Peter Strickland. Co-producers, Tudor Giurgiu, Oana Giurgiu. Directed, written by Peter Strickland.

Crew

Camera (color, 16mm-to-35mm), Mark Gyori; editor, Matyaf Fekete; music, Steven Stapleton, Geoff Cox; sound (Dolby SR), Zoltan Karaszek; sound designer, Gyorgy Kovacs. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 11, 2009. Running time: 84 MIN.

With

Hilda Peter, Tibor Palffy, Norbert Tanko, Melinda Kantor, Sebastian Marina, Roberto Giacomello, Laszlo Matray.

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