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Simon Read [Film Festival 06.24.09] movie review drama

Year: 2009
Directors: Peter Strickland
Writers: Peter Strickland
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: projectcyclops
Rating: 7 out of 10

Something of a feminist revenge movie, set in rural Hungarian-Romanian Transylvania, Katalin Varga is Peter Strickland’s feature debut, and it’s impressive. Hilda Péter plays the titular character, banished by her husband after a dark secret is revealed in the opening scenes; she takes her horse and cart, and her young son, and tracks down two men responsible for a violent act from her past.

The nature of the plot is such that I can’t describe it fully without revealing a big spoiler, so I’ll stick to what makes the film work as a whole. First, the performance by Péter is strong and convincing; she’s desperate, lonely and anxious to protect her 10-year-old boy, lying to him about the journey by explaining that it’s a trip to visit Grandma. Even when it becomes apparent that it’s anything but, she can’t bring herself to let him in on the shocking truth. Strickland uses the landscape very well, with gorgeous location shots and inventive direction, the foreboding forest scenes are creepy and there’s an overall air of menace that makes the film work as a horror, as well as revenge and character based piece.

The music and incidental sound are spot-on, combined with jarring cuts and unexpected, sudden shifts in tone that keep the viewer on edge throughout the relatively short running time. I’ve read online that the story is taken from Mihail Sadoveanu's novel, ‘Baltagul’. I’ve not read the source material, but the screenplay is heavy on social realism and works on several levels. One scene that works well has Katalin graduate from very rural, to only slightly rural Hungary as her journey goes on, and start to notice modern touches like mobile phones and girls wearing funky t-shirts. At the beginning I’d assumed this was set way in the past, and it’s a good trick to fool the viewer into expecting a period piece only to be thrust into the 21st century, which compliments the theme of a strong female character seeking justice and equality. One of the strongest selling points of the film is that, when Katalin does find the men, the story doesn’t go down a predictable route. I had my expectations confounded somewhat, as her tactics were far more human and reasonable given her situation. Kill Bill this isn’t, and better for it.

Overall, the film works extremely well and I can highly recommend it if you’re intrigued by the above. The film is briskly paced, original and, in the end, quite shocking and brutal. There are no real heroes, or even true villains, merely characters who have to live with themselves and protect what they hold dear. It’s a refreshing change and I look forward to Strickland’s next project.

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