Peter Strickland’s 2009 debut is surprisingly good. The surprise is not because it’s a debut – there are plenty of great debuts out there – but because a British director has managed to make a film that seems truly Romanian. To be fair, my knowledge of Romanian cinema and culture is rather limited, so I’ll settle for saying that his philosophical revenge-drama (a simplification, I know) wears its Eastern European influences on its sleeve; it is at least far from Anglo-centric. The film is not in any way glamorous or commercial, striving instead for (and achieving) brutal realism despite its various dreamy moments, outlining the consequences of personal retribution in a thoughtful and thought-provoking fashion.
Katalin Varga has been banished from her village by her husband, who has found out about her rape and the fact that his son is not biologically his. The community is not terribly supportive of women: the first time we see Katalin interact with a man, she is ignored, and the second time she is given a cold response after a blank silence. It seems like a medieval setting at first, but a few tell-tale signs (mobile phones, modern-looking road signs) make the themes (explained later) seem of more contemporary relevance.
Márk Györi’s cinematography is one of the best things about this film. The lovely misty mountain imagery foreshadows the moral ambiguities that soon arise. Simple, elegant shots give us a somewhat Manichean sense of the Romanian countryside: there is a beauty in the openness, the rolling hills and the blue skies that evokes peace and serenity, but the same beautiful openness can leave people like Katalin and her son bare and exposed. There are definite Tarkovskian influences here: the ominous atmospheres, the natural imagery, the ponderous tracking shots such as the ominous shot of the forest into which Katalin stares, terrified. Stalker in particular comes to mind, although while Tarkovsky’s direction is often tedious and pseudo-philosophical – I know that’s heresy, so crucify me – Strickland’s is more thoughtful and symbolic. Take, for example, the juxtaposition of a muzzled horse with a bird of prey in flight, which succinctly encapsulates the theme of liberation. Our friend Andrei is, to be frank, more boring. For all his influence, aesthetic or otherwise, he takes three hours to say less than what Strickland says in eighty minutes.
Although not the main theme of the film, the hypocrisy of the religious is well touched-upon. Katalin’s resigned sigh of “whatever happened was God’s will” indicates a religious fatalist, yet she doesn’t rely on God to deliver justice. She doesn’t even rely on the legal system. Instead, she takes the law into her own hands, exacting revenge on the observer of her rape with a fatal brick to the face. Hardly the most Christian thing to do. The rapist, Antal, is seen by his wife as a “saint”, while she, ostensibly a Christian, commits suicide, her feet seen dangling from a tree in a truly heart-rending scene. Are Christian ethics realistically able to be followed in such a cruel world, or are people naturally not able to follow them due to an intrinsic human weakness? The film raises the question rather than answering it. It’s more interesting that way.
Like that 19th-century masterpiece on retribution, Dumas’ The Count of Monte-Cristo, Katalin Varga deals with two kinds of justice, while implicitly raising the concept of a third: divine retribution. The principal two are legal and personal, and in both works the wronged protagonist decides to take justice into his/her own hands. The film is less entertaining, more modern and more cynical, aiming for punchy realism rather than an extended, upbeat yarn. And thus, Katalin is killed while Monte-Cristo sails on into the sunset. The final shot of the film is of Katalin (when she was alive) and her son gazing into the distance: hope thwarted. The last word in Dumas’ novel is “hope”. There is a stark difference between the modern world and that of the Romantics; in the former, innocent people like Antal’s wife get killed. Purportedly noble actions can have grave and unexpected consequences. Robert Burns knew a lot about mice and men.
Strickland explores the complexities of crime and punishment from an interesting angle: although the idea of a criminal having good qualities isn’t exactly original, here it is probed in an original way. At first I thought the ‘showdown’ between Katalin and Antal was too soon: there hadn’t been enough character development, and as a result the scene wasn’t as moving as it could have been. However, this isn’t the point of the film: instead of aiming for a conventional climax, Strickland places the confrontation two-thirds of the way through the film so that what happens thereafter is devoted to fleshing out Antal’s character, after he discovers the identity of she who has entered his world again. It is this that makes the ending truly moving.
As in many of the best films, all the characters in the film are flawed to various degrees. Some are weak, some evil, some too headstrong for their own good. In a world where the media seems to demonise or canonise everyone, this film illustrates the complexities of both humans and the concept of justice. It realises there are no easy answers, and is all the wiser for it.