Katalin Varga: it’s the kind of title that, beyond telling you its subject is a woman, gives nothing away and encourages you to look more closely at the synopsis and credits. You then discover it’s a Rumanian-Hungarian-UK co-production, with a first time English-speaking writer-director, Peter Strickland, at the helm. You also discover that, at its core, it’s a rape-revenge film.
If the film is more The Virgin Spring than Last House on the Left in its art-house rather than exploitation trappings, its nevertheless still a daunting combination of film-maker and material that’s far easier to get wrong than right.
As an outsider Strickland one obvious advantage: he can engage with subject matter the insider cannot. But he also thereby suffers from an obvious disadvantage: can he really understand this subject matter as an insider would. (And, if so, perhaps we then might ask which insider’s perspective that we are we talking about, that of the male perpetrator, the female victim or some third party?)
Happily Strickland proves more than adequate to the challenge he has imposed on himself, as he exposes male and female attitudes that seem both universal and the product of specific historical circumstances; draws nuanced and believable performances from his cast; and reveals an eye for landscape and place that for me recalled early Werner Herzog – perhaps not a surprising connection when we consider Katalin Varga’s Transylvanian setting and the at times Popul Vuh quality of its ambient score.
In particular, we see how the importance of honour and vendetta, coupled with a distinctly unforgiving notion of Christianity, lead to tragedy:
Katalin has concealed the secret of her rape from her husband for ten years. He thinks he is the father of (t)he(i)r child, Orban. When Katalin finally confides in a trusted friend word nevertheless gets to her husband, who orders that they leave for shaming him. Telling Orban that his grandmother is ill, Katalin sets off in search of revenge on the men who have wronged her…
But if the story thus suggests a timelessness, the omnipresence of the mobile phone – the sole piece of (post-)modern technology present, indicates that the film is set in the post-revolutionary present. The further tragedy, if we think about the implied resurgence of Christianity post-communism and the officially atheist situation during communist rule, is how little the position of women seems to have changed over the course of two or three generations.