British director Peter Strickland’s debut feature is a stunning piece of work. Made on 16mm film and produced independently it was picked up by Libra productions and screened at the Berlin Film Festival where it was also nominated for the Golden Bear. Shot in the Transylvanian region of Romania, the story concerns a middle-aged woman who is left homeless when her husband finds out that she was raped and that their child is a product of that act. With her son Orban in tow, Katalin sets out on a mission of vengeance to find and punish her tormentors.
In a recent article printed on the New York Times website Stanley Fish commented on the ongoing popularity of revenge films at the U.S. box office. Two of the recent successes associated with the genre, one of which is mentioned in the article, are Taken and Law Abiding Citizen. A film like Katalin Varga, however, will never get the marketing and publicity attributed to those productions and most likely pass undetected on limited release at cinemas. The reason for this is that the film is more concerned with creating a unique environment for its characters to inhabit rather than focusing on the perverse violence undertaken by the protagonist. The latter scenario has become a prototype for the genre. Katalin Varga, however, is more thought provoking in its subtle approach to its overbearing narrative arc. The ending packs such a shock that no number of gruesome deaths can compete with its impact.
The film’s cinematography is particularly striking bestowing its location a pastoral quality. The soundtrack by Steven Stapleton and Geoff Cox is hauntingly atmospheric automatically attaching a sense of dread to Katalin’s journey. Together the two elements blend to create the kind of suspense that is associated with the mythical region of the film’s location. In particular one remembers Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a prominent piece of literature that was set in the same location. There are repetitive shots of a dark forest shown from Katalin’s point of view which are related to the horrific experience she underwent but also bring to mind the supernatural images of the novel.
Strickland has gone on record as stating that he was trying to avoid any connection to the vampiric myth associated with the region. His film, however, contains a larger more contemporary evil. It is the patriarchal menace of society that terrorizes the film’s protagonist. The narrative contains hardly any benevolent male characters and it is the women who continuously suffer at their hands. Saying that, Strickland does manage to make the viewer sympathise with Orban’s genetic father, Antal. Upon learning from Katalin that she was his victim there is a genuine sense of responsibility and grief in his behaviour. At the disgust of the boy’s mother he even begins to bond with Orban.
Apart from its ending the film contains several emotionally resonant moments. In particular Katalin’s monologue that she recites to Antal and his wife describing how she was raped is an intense sequence. Katalina’s dialogue transforms what is at first a horrific memory into a redemptive fairy tale. She recounts how she was told to persevere after the encounter by the animals of the forest. The scene contains no flashbacks and is ultimately better for it because we are left with an account that takes on mythical proportions.
Katalin Varga is a huge accomplishment for its crew and director. Any reservations one has of its amateur status, being shot on 16mm and independently produced, are laid to rest once its arresting visuals are experienced. Furthermore it contains well developed characters brought to life through solid performances by the cast. It deserves wider recognition as a progressive film which successfully subverts the genre conventions associated with revenge films.