Peter Strickland’s Katalin Varga is a revenge tragedy set in a part of modern-day Europe so remote that people still turn the hay by hand, put strangers up for the night and where a lone woman can drive her son on a horse and cart for miles between villages. Yet it is a place where the mobile phone has also become a commonplace.
When Zigismond (Florin Vidamski) finds out that the boy, Orban (Norbert Tanko), is not really his son he flings his wife Katalin out. Katalin, played with brutal intensity by Hilda Peter, sets out to wreak revenge on those she believes have brought her to this pass. Reliant on the kindness of strangers, Katalin and Orban’s journey brings her some of the retribution she wants but little of its comfort. This is particularly true in her final confrontation when she is given hospitality by Antal (Tibor Palffy) and his wife, Etelka (Melinda Kantor). Katalin explains her situation to them in an astonishing scene in which Antal and Etelka take Katalin out in the rain in a rowing boat. Katalin’s description of her brutalization is at first minutely detailed and harrowing, and then mystical and transcendent. However its effect is most devastating on the warm, kindly Etelka who is struggling with her own childlessness.
Strickland’s film is at one and the same time, absorbing and oddly unengaging. The story has a tragic inevitability, but still has the capacity to shock and excite, and is gripping from the beginning. However, none of the characters are sympathetic apart from the lovely Etelka. Even the son, Orban, seems old and weary beyond his years, the victim at the very heart of the adults’ futile, bloody, concern with honour and retribution. This is a very Catholic environment where the women cover their hair and grace is said before every meal. Time and again, the characters talk about how close they all are to sin and damnation, as if St Paul were clutching at their hearts. Yet it is Katalin who has the tragic flaw and has brought all this on herself by revealing her secret.
It is a beautifully shot film, combining close-ups of harrowed faces, nerve-jangling hand held film of Katalin and Orban running from their own pursuers, and long shots of rolling countryside. Strickland has stated that his influences include Tarkovsky and certainly the Tarkovsky of Stalker is a presence here, as are the recent films of Andrei Zvyagintsev in particular, The Return , with its stark, ruined landscapes.