By Ron Holloway | July 11, 2008
Awarded the Golden Reel and International Critics Prize at the Hungarian Film Week in Budapest last February, Kornel Mundruczo’s Delta (Hungary/France/Germany, 2008) arrived at Cannes as a front runner for Palme d’Or laurels. To say nothing of the director’s career as a rising auteur linked directly to the good graces of this festival.
And although Delta came away empty-handed on awards night, it did receive the prestigious FIPRESCI Critics Prize, thus certifying Mundruczo as a creative name to watch in the Hungarian national cinematography already packed with awarded auteur filmmakers at key international festivals – among them, Bela Tarr (The Man from London, Cannes 2007), Benedek Fliegauf (Milky Way, Locarno 2007), Gyorgy Palfi (Taxidermia, Cannes 2006), and Nimrod Antal (Control, Cannes 2004). Four years in the making, Delta had to be largely reshot due to the death of the lead actor (Lajos Bertok, to whom the film is dedicated) in the middle of shooting. The film then went through plot changes to fit the personality of the new lead actor, musician Felix Lajko, in order to accommodate someone who had never stood before a camera before. Flooded with the striking visual scenery of the Romanian Danube delta, a lush wildlife haven, this aspect of the film alone made it a standout at Cannes. Add a haunting musical score composed by violin virtuoso Felix Lajko, and you have a creative work of film art that deserves recognition on multiple fronts.
When Mihai (Felix Lajko) returns to the Danube delta after many years, arriving too late for the burial of his father, he finds his mother already married to another man. And he is introduced to his half-sister Fauna (Orsi Toth, the star of Mundruczo’s previous Joanna film-oratorio), whom he did not know even existed. Retreating to an isolated corner of the delta, Mihai sets about building his own house with the help of Fauna, whose decision to live with her brother leads to incest and thereby spurs the scorn of the community. When Fauna is brutally raped by the stepfather – depicted in an emotionally charged long shot – the tragedy then runs its course. Nursed back to health by her Mihai, she is more determined than ever to hold her ground against her family and the community. However, their “unnatural” relationship triggers a vengeful reaction amongst the backward community, leading to a fatal outburst at a feast organized by the pair to make peace with their neighbors.
Born in 1975 in Budapest, Kornel Mundruczo graduated from the Budapest Film and Drama Academy in 1998. After a handful of shorts and documentaries, he directed This I Wish and Nothing More (2000), a short feature in an experimental vein, followed by the equally impressive Afta (Day by Day) (2001), a short film that caught the drudging atmosphere of small-town life in its depiction of a boy’s encounters on a blazing hot day. The breakthrough on the international scene came when his debut feature, Szep Napok (Pleasant Days) (2002), shot on a shoestring, was awarded the Special Jury Prize and International Critics Prize at the Hungarian Film Week in Budapest. Invited later to compete in the Debut Features section at the Locarno festival, it won a Silver Leopard. In Pleasant Days Mundruczo takes a grim look at small-town mores in this exacting tale about a 17-year-old girl bearing a child at a public laundromat and then selling it to a barren mother in a prearranged deal. Impressive for its frank realism, upfront sexuality, and black humor, Pleasant Days was reedited at the recommendation of French producer Philippe Bober for entry in a new version at the 2003 Rotterdam film festival. An immediate hit at Rotterdam, as well as later on the festival circuit, Mundruczo’s new version of Pleasant Days also won him a six-month stay for young filmmakers at the Cannes Residence Program in Paris.
While at the Cannes Residence, Mundruczo hit upon the idea of filming an opéra court titled Joan of Arc on the Night Bus (2003). The 24-minute episode was programmed as part of the omnibus film A Bus Came… Intrigued by the possibility of fashioning an oratorio loosely based on the story of Jeanne d’Arc, he then expanded the footage of Joan of Arc on the Night Bus into his second feature film, Johanna. Presented in the Un Certain Regard section at 2005 Cannes festival, Johanna drew high critical praise as a rare example in cinema history of a film-oratorio. Johanna opens at a bloody traffic accident. Johanna (Orsi Toth), a drug addict in a coma, is taken to a hospital in a pool of blood. Upon rising from her coma, she proclaims to the astonished doctors that she has been miraculously cured. Deciding on the spot to dedicate her life as a nurse, she soon discovers she can dispense her miraculous powers to terminally ill patients by lying down next to them in bed. Rebuffed by a lecherous member of the medical staff, Johanna is medically disposed of, her body stuffed into a bag, and her corpse thrown upon a garbage dump to be incinerated.
Much the same fate awaited Mihai and Fauna in Kornel Mundruczo’s Delta. In contrast to its slight dramatic narrative line, the film’s imagery effectively enforces metaphorically the timeless primeval tragic elements of a story that was apparently inspired by similar murderous and revengeful elements found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Euripides’ Electra. “I tried to understand the kind of freedom that allows someone to transcend the norm, rather than talk about sexual deviance,” stated Kornel Mundruczo in an interview. “It is not the incest that is at the heart of the story, but the courage it takes to accept what is a natural attraction, even it if breaks with conventions. What is intolerable is that there are people who believe they have the right to persecute those who do not fit the norm.” Munduczo aimed high to make Delta a tragic universal tale of incest – and nearly succeeded.
– Ron Holloway
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