Hungary, 2008, colour, 93 mins
- Director: Kornél Mundruczó
- Screenplay: Kornél Mundruczó, Yvette Bíró
- Photography: Mátyás Erdély
- Editor: David Jancsó
- Costume Designer: János Breckl
- Music: Félix Lajkó
- Producer: Viktória Petrányi, Philippe Bober, Susanne Marian
- Production Company: Essential Filmproduktion GmbH, Filmpartners, Proton Cinema
- Cast: Félix Lajkó (young man), Orsi Tóth (his sister), Lili Monori (their mother), Sándor Gáspár (her lover)
By some distance the most sheerly beautiful film I saw in the 2006 Sarajevo Film Festival was the Croatian short Delta, an almost wordless study of the lives of people who live and fish by the mouth of the Danube. Kornél Mundruczó’s feature has the same title, is set in a near-identical (albeit unidentified) setting and ups the aesthetic ante yet further – in fact, if visual pleasure was the sole defining criterion of a film’s success, Delta would be hands-down one of the year’s triumphs. However, much like Mundruczó’s previous feature Johanna (2006), the film’s undeniable strengths are ultimately diluted by narrative weaknesses, with both films concluding with a final act so pat and predictable as to negate much of the power of what’s come before.
The premise could hardly be simpler. A young man returns from a long period of possibly self-imposed exile to meet his mother for the first time in what must be a good couple of decades – judging from the fact that he has an adult sister whom he’s never met. But there’s already tension in the air: the mother, possibly influenced by her suspicious boyfriend, refuses to allow him to stay with them at their place (the local watering hole, whose clientèle seems to be whiling away the long years between performing similar functions in Béla Tarr projects), and are taken aback when he not only proposes moving into his father’s hut, a derelict shack on the banks of the delta itself, but says that he’s staying for good. For much of the film’s running time he painstakingly constructs both a lengthy wooden pier and a house on stilts, growing increasingly closer to his sister in the process. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t go down well with the local populace (and neither does the young man’s flouting of local administrative requirements), and they eventually make their feelings all too clear…
But this is not, to put it mildly, a film for those in search of narrative pleasure, as much of the running time is taken up with long, wordless sequences, often accompanied solely by natural sounds. Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély works miracles with light and colour – there are several shots, notably one of the delta at sunrise, the horizon a pale green brushstroke, that could have come straight out of a Turner painting. When one of the barflies dies (off camera), it seems merely an excuse for staging a breathtaking set-piece involving dozens of black-clad villagers taking to the water en masse, their boats gliding silently through the water. (It’s somewhat reminiscent of the aquatic masked parade in Joseph Losey’s 1979 film of Don Giovanni, the villagers’ faces just as fixed and expressionless). The sound similarly tends towards abstraction, consisting largely of insect chirps, frog croaks and bird calls, occasionally interspersed with lugubrious strings. The more than somewhat Herzogian feel is augmented by the use of a Popol Vuh track (‘On the Way’), and the polyrhythmic experiments of Mundruczó’s great compatriot György Ligeti are recalled in a scene where nails are banged into a timber roof strut by multiple hands (this goes on for so long that it’s entirely plausible that the nod to Ligeti’s notorious metronome piece ‘Poème Symphonique’ may well have been deliberate).
By contrast, the conversational scenes are gruffly matter-of-fact, as though Mundruczó wanted to get them over with as quickly as possible – this applies both to the encounters with the mother’s lover (where the hostility is palpable) and the ostensibly far friendlier chats between the young man and his uncle, who helps him with the construction. A rape is carried out in near-silent long-shot, so distant that it’s not immediately clear what’s going on until a close-up of the physical evidence eliminates all doubt. It’s at this point that the film starts veering towards melodrama (albeit of a slow, deep-frozen kind), finally boiling over in the penultimate scene, which might have been more effective if it hadn’t been essentially a re-run of the ending of Johanna. A coda, in which an orange lifejacket floats down the delta to the nudge-nudge accompaniment of the slow movement of Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet, returns the film to its earlier contemplative mode, as though the human intervention was a mere blip in millennia of natural history.
On the evidence of this and Johanna, Mundruczó is clearly one of the more interesting of the younger generation of Hungarian directors (he was born in 1975), though he still seems a little too indebted to his sometime producer Béla Tarr (a lengthy scene of silent trudging in Delta comes across as direct homage) and he’s overfond of archetypal ‘tragic’ narratives that tend more towards predictability than profundity. These flaws seem so consistent with Mundruczó’s earlier work that it seems unlikely that they were a side-effect of extensive reshooting caused by original lead actor Lajos Bertok dying during production (the film is dedicated to him): his replacement, violinist Félix Lajkó (who also wrote the film’s original score, one of its unarguable triumphs) is more than up to the task. So too is Mundruczó’s regular female muse Orsi Tóth (she played leads in Johanna and 2002’s Pleasant Days), though the acting standout is Lili Monori as their mother, conflicted emotions scudding across her face like clouds, her face and hands conveying a lifetime of drudgery and toil.