Katalin Varga (2009) [Review]

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In a remote rural village in the Transylvanian mountains, Katalin Varga is cast out of her home in when her husband discovers that her son Orban is not his. Taking Orban with her, Katalin sets out on a long journey to track down and punish the men who raped her 11 years earlier.

Reading into The Duke of Burgundy prior to seeing it last month, I was inclined to look into the director Peter Strickland and his previous work. Katalin Varga is his debut feature, set in the Hungarian-speaking part of the Romanian region of Transylvania, it seemed an odd choice to have your first film not appear in your native language. A decision perhaps to draw on some socio-political parallel I am unfamiliar with, but one that consequently created many benefits from an atmospheric and aesthetic perspective.

This slow burning, folk thriller follows Katalin Varga (Hilda Péter) as she attempts to track down the men who raped her from her past. This is not your typical thriller, there is no sense of impending torture or expected drawn out brutal vengeance. It’s stark realism is what makes this film all the more intriguing, as Hilda Péter displays all the actions and emotions of a calm yet traumatised victim. She is extraordinary in her portrayal of Katalin, achieving just as much in a simple half smile as she does in the strange extended monologue. The role of mother and the victim all wrapped up into a seductive and vindictive woman carries the film through to it’s shocking conclusion, and it is a passionate performance that is difficult to shake off.

The above is enhanced by the atmospherics, which create a sort of dream like world for this to take place in. It makes for a unique viewing experience as we drift from scene to scene, across the beautiful landscapes that are somehow enhanced by the low budget, as the weird noises, local music and long silences enable the viewer to lose focus with reality, only to snap back into the regular narrative. You become absorbed into the film, immersed in the storytelling as the inauspicious atmosphere swells around you.

It is a powerful movie, filled with eeriness and impressive performances and yet it manages to steer clear of the bad habits found in conventional revenge thrillers. The tension is unbearable, the plot is unpredictable and the outcome is unforgiving. Katalin does what many other women would do in her situation if they could, and seeks closure via the route of revenge. Whether there is a deeper underlying message here I am unsure, but this tragic tale is extremely poignant and exceeds with it’s simple storytelling and entrancing delivery.

Strickland is one of the most exciting filmmakers out there at the moment, and I cannot wait to see what he does next.

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