Katalin Varga (played by Hilda Péter) is overheard talking to her best friend, sharing a deep secret that she had bottled up inside herself for more than ten years. Word spreads and her husband hears. Disgraced and ashamed, he orders her to flee their Hungarian village along with the boy he no longer views as his son.
She tells Orbán that they’re going to visit her sick mother. But Katalin is on a mission to confront the men who wronged her so violently all those years ago. She wants revenge. Up until now, she only dreamt of it. Now she needs to “pay some men a surprise visit”, driven to revisit painful places and redeem her broken marital relationship.
They travel throughout the Hungarian countryside (though actually filmed in Romania) on horse and cart. First film I’ve ever seen in which a “Horse Whisperer” was credited in the closing titles! It’s a slow way to travel; the population becomes sparser; and it is clear that where the two men live ... no one would advise you travel. After “obtaining closure” (in the Spooks sense of the phrase) with the accomplice, mother and son flee, trekking on foot for the remainder of their quest.
The film’s score is eerie - Nick James described it in the Observer as “anguished” - full of haunting wails that complement the grim, creepy photography. At times it felt reminiscent of the Australian film Walkabout, with the two figures walking across lush fields instead of the barren Outback. You spend a lot of time looking at the back of the characters, seeing the view that was in front of them.
Finally reaching the end of her trail, Katalin is taken out in a boat by the couple she and Orbán are lodging with for a few evenings. It’s a pivotal moment as she recounts what happened ten or so years ago close to the lake. The man, Antal, sweats and the boat judders as he stops concentrating on his oar strokes. His wife is still, her face frozen, suspecting what she will later overhear in the middle of the night.
A few hours later, the Antal’s pleads of “Forgive me” are not met with compassion. This is about revenge. Yet when “God’s work is done and judgement is upon you” is cried out in the final minutes of the film, revenge proves to be more destructive than Katalin imagined.
I saw Katalin Varga in London’s Curzon Soho. Although pre-warned by the digital logo at the start of the film, it was pretty obvious that it was a digital “print” and wasn’t being projected from film. There was a very different visual quality.
Green fields and blue skies shimmered, obviously grainy rather than being slightly blurry, while the subtitle text was super crisp. Yet there were filmic flecks of white peppering shots. Although shot on film, it had been scanned, with the subtitles added to the digital copy. The graininess detracted from the superb, moody cinematography, and it made it feel poor quality overall.
Amazingly, Katalin Varga wasn’t written by a Hungarian or a Romanian. It’s an English director’s debut screenplay and film - Peter Strickland. The film’s tagline is “Revenge will set her free”. But this is no fairy story. It turns out to be a tragic tale where, no new wrongs can compensate an old wrong.
There’s nothing uplifting, no jokes, no schmaltz. But the simple drama is a fascinating watch.