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Forbidden Fruit in the Cement Garden

MOVIE REVIEW
Delta (2008)

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The Times BFI 52nd London Film Festival

When the young female lead in a film is introduced wearing an apron splattered with pig’s blood, it is a sure indication that the next 90 minutes are not likely to send you out of the cinema wiping tears of mirth from your cheeks. So it is with “Delta,” an on the whole downbeat experience, but a very rewarding one for those willing to make the effort.

The film’s story concerns a small and insular rural community situated on the edge of the Hungarian Danube. These villagers are largely distrusting of the modern world and its damned progressive thinking. They are somewhat reminiscent of the folk who used to crop up in old horror movies, usually with a warning attached to them along the lines of “they don’t take too kindly to strangers, mind.”

Their attitude could well be accounted for by the bitter toughness of their lives. When they are not spending long working days raising livestock (hence the pig’s blood) or farming timber, they are in the local inn drinking themselves into a transient stupor. Naturally, this existence results in a somewhat dour disposition. With the notable exception of the two main protagonists, had any of the other characters in the film cracked a smile, it would have been a visual surprise akin to the moment in “Basic Instinct” where Sharon Stone flashes her lady garden.

Into this environment returns Mihail (Félix Lajkó), a prodigal son who has been away making money in the big city for several years. We are not told much about him, or indeed anybody else, for this is a film that favors anonymity. Later on, we learn that he has spent time working in a zoo; and from the chilly reception he receives upon his arrival, it is clear that some sort of bad blood has flowed in the past. Even his own mother offers him a welcome that is colder than any of the fish swimming in the local waters. His stepfather, meanwhile, generally makes him feel unwanted and tries several stumbling attempts to pick a fight with him. When Mihail pops into the village inn to fill up his brandy bottle, he is in grave danger of being lacerated by the daggers given him by the locals.

Only his younger sister, Fauna (the pig killer), played by Orsolya Tóth, shows him any signs of affection. When he wisely decides that he would be better off living on his own than at home, she opts to help him build a new timber house up river. Later, he gets some assistance from an uncle who does not seem willing to let a family feud get in the way of the pride he takes in his work, but on the whole it is the two siblings who carry out most of the construction.

As they work, live and even have some fun together, they become much closer. Closer, in fact, than many societies would deem acceptable. Slowly, the fog surrounding the family’s strange reaction to the son’s reappearance begins to lift. Meanwhile, the locals are becoming more suspicious and, in some cases, even jealous of the couple in their wooden hideaway. In an attempt to make peace with the villagers, the siblings try to build figurative bridges along with timber ones, but already a confrontation between the old and new ways of life appears inevitable.

It is no belittlement of the overall success of Kornél Mundruczó’s beautifully underplayed film to say that the most striking feature about it may well be the soundtrack. It is not just the splendidly mournful music – a mix of Schubert and an original score composed by leading man, Mr. Lajkó, which won a prize at Cannes – but also the symphony of natural noise compiled from the wildlife of the Danube which forms an almost persistent backing track to the images.

The chirps, tweets and croaks, along with the rush of the river itself often threaten to drown out the fairly minimal dialogue and engulf the brother and sister with a pulsating rhythm which hints at the passions bubbling away below their placid demeanors. The cinematography is also very imaginative, and there are moments, such as when a flotilla of boats gathers for a funeral service, when both sound and vision combine to magnificent effect. During this sequence, among others, one can surely detect echoes of the films of Terrence Malick and the early work of Peter Weir.

The film’s general lack of exposition may prove frustrating to some, but the ambiguity adds a strong touch of mystery which gradually draws one completely into the story. This is a film that does not condescend to its audience and, importantly, does not pass judgment on its characters’ behavior, preferring to trust that its audience is smart enough to think for itself.

DELTA

Opens on March 12, 2010 in New York and on May 8 in Britain.

Directed by Kornél Mundruczó; written by Yvette Biro; director of photography, Matyas Erdely; music by Felix Lajko; produced by Philippe Bober; released by Facets Multimedia (United States) and ICA Films (Britain). In Hungarian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. This film is not rated by M.P.A.A. and rated 18 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Félix Lajkó (Mihail), Orsolya Tóth (Fauna), Lili Monori (Mother) and Sándor Gáspár (Mother’s Lover).

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