Peter Strickland’s debut feature, made from inheritance money of £25,000 and shot in Hungary nearly 2 years ago, in a language he hardly spoke, seems, from the out set, a film which more than many independents even, could have never seen the light of day. The fact that it did is a real testament to the spirit of film making which feels like it’s becoming rarer every day. After filming the feature Strickland even headed back to his home town of Reading in the UK to work a remedial job for 8 months in order to fund the post production of his low key revenge opus.
The simplistic plot of Katalin Varga hides a psychologically complex thriller. After Katalin’s husband discovers their ten year old son is not his own, the pair are banished from their village and set off on horse and cart into a modern world Transylvania. Katalin (Hilda Peter) tells her son they are off to see his grandmother but it soon becomes obvious that she is driven by what one can only suspect is the need to find the father of her child. Of course things are never as easy as that. The more we learn of Varga, her past and her quest the more we care for her but more finally and importantly feel ourselves question her.
The darkness of tone and the tension, via an ominous ambient soundtrack is soon railed up so high it’s suffocating. Sighting Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter as a prime influence on the film, Strickland moves with tiny but focused steps. Peter’s performance is cool and measured and just that little bit off key enough to add to the pot-boiling atmosphere.
The lingering woodland shots and booming soundtrack are of course reminiscent of Von Trier’s woodland shocker Antichrist but sadly aren’t photographed nearly as beautifully. Often the film looks too flat and grainy and although the beauty of the countryside is not intended to be the star of the film, ultimately it’s sad that some of Katalin Varga’s more personal scenes aren’t as strong visually as they could have been.
These minor gripes are of course washed away by the fact that Strickland’s sheer determination to get his film made and into the festival circuit has paid off. Its so refreshing for, me to think that he’s managed to make an acclamied and powerful film with the amount of money some people spend on a family car. He told the Guardian early this month; “…I asked myself, ‘Should I buy myself a one-bedroom flat in Bracknell or should I make a revenge film in Transylvania?’. I think the main thing that kept me going was knowing that if I bought a flat, I would always wonder, ‘What if?’ Even if I failed, I would know I tried my very best.”
When all is said and done Katalin Varga is a dark and affecting piece of super low budget cinema and, more importantly, one which deserves your attention. Thank god Strickland veered away from Bracknell.