Just as the hype about the ‘New Wave’ in post-communist Romanian cinema seems to have settled down, October sees the theatrical release of two new films set in that country, although they have nothing else in common. Directed by a group of young Romanian directors and devised by Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), Tales from the Golden Age explores five urban legends from the nation’s troubled past. In contrast, Katalin Varga, directed by British writer-director Peter Strickland, offers a dark fable unfolding in the rural wilds of the Romanian hinterland with an unexcited, outdated look, and little interest in the cutting social criticism that has become the trademark of Eastern European filmmaking in the last few years. The film chronicles the journey of a young peasant’s wife who has to face her demons in the Transylvanian forest and is led to seek vengeance on the two men who violated her a decade earlier. Although the rape-revenge story may not sound original on paper, Katalin Varga is a daring, stylistically confident British feature debut that in its thirst for cinematic exploration and adventure recalls Asif Kapadia’s stunning The Warrior (2001), with which it also shares a spellbinding location and a bold belief in the compelling power of visual storytelling.
But why would a young filmmaker with no money and no knowledge of the foreign language want to make a film in Transylvania? ‘This was simply the place I chose to shoot in because it seemed to offer the right atmosphere for my story,’ says Strickland. ‘In a way, I thought I could be truer to myself with a film that is set in the mountains rather than in Reading, where I come from’. Yet, slim and elliptical as the narrative is, it feels at times as if the story is there to help explore the setting, rather than the other way round. This is especially true in the first part, when Katalin (impressively played by Hilda Péter), banished by her husband (and the entire village) after the discovery that he is not actually the father of their 11-year-old son Orbí¡n, sets out on a mission to hunt down her tormentors. Mother and son ride a horse-cart up into the Carpathians, sleeping in people’s barns, until they reach their destination. As Katalin finds and confronts Antal, the man who assaulted her, Strickland offers no simple tale of retribution, but explores a painfully complex emotional situation in a riveting manner.
Given the film’s precise aesthetic and increasingly chilling, expressionistic feel, it comes as little surprise to learn that Peter Strickland’s key points of reference for Katalin Varga were Werner Herzog and the great Russian film poets Tarkovsky and Paradjanov. A good part of the film alternates between sun-drenched expanses of the Carpathian fields and mountains, looming forests and murky nocturnal rural interiors. All are equally unsettling once Strickland abandons conventional art-house meandering camera pans and cryptic myth-making to opt instead for an increasingly rough photography with abrupt scene changes and searching close-ups. Infusing his elegantly wrought images with a throbbing, electronic-choral score that is very much at odds with the naturalistic setting, Strickland is clearly more concerned with the human dimension of the morally intricate scenario, revealing the astonishingly beautiful landscape as a place where a brutal sort of justice will eventually prevail.
Showing an obvious talent for creating a misty atmosphere of dread, Strickland keeps the time setting eerily vague. The horse-cart suggests a bygone era until Katalin picks up her mobile phone for the first time to talk to her husband, and it is to Strickland’s credit that he makes use of a number of different tactics to subvert our expectations. ‘It makes people angry when they see Antal,’ he says, ‘because they expect him to be this evil monster. And Katalin does too. But evil people are not evil every single working hour, and by not showing the crime he committed against her I’m furthering our confusion, so the audience is almost like a jury in this sense’.
Some may feel that Strickland veers a little too much into metaphysical territory at the expense of keeping the tension up. Others may dislike his partiality to painterly compositions and Tarkovskian cinematic poetry. Despite such arguable flaws, Katalin Varga often hits a note of genuine otherworldliness, and the power of this slow-burning, nightmarish tale is utterly compelling, contrasting with Strickland’s modest expectations when he was making the film: ‘I really thought we would fail,’ he admits. ‘But I also thought, if I screw up I might as well fail in style. On a very personal level, this film was an adventure, and we reconciled ourselves to the fact that we had the memories of making it - because filmmaking is so difficult when you are outside the system that you have to at least try to have a good time with it.’