...beautifully shot, with an impressive feel for the poetry of faces and natural phenomena...
by A. O. Scott
“A typical festival art film.” That was the judgment of a friend of mine after the Tuesday press screening of “Delta,” a competition entry from the Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo. Since the friend in question runs a film festival (not this one), he surely knows whereof he speaks. But anyone who has spent time on the international circuit that runs through Berlin, Toronto, Park City and beyond would recognize the features of the genre, which we checked as we walked out of the Palais into the afternoon sun.
To make a festival film, you must first choose a location, ideally a remote region only lightly touched by modernity, where the people say very little and an unseen authority rigorously enforces laws against smiling. You will film the landscape and its inhabitants in long takes with minimal camera movements. Though the characters will generally do very little — walk, smoke, sigh — their more significant actions characteristically will be undertaken in the absence of a discernible motive. Even as nothing much seems to happen, a mood of menace and portent will hang in the air, usually culminating in a burst of violence in the movie’s last minutes.
To say that “Delta” rigorously upholds these conventions is not to say that it’s bad. It is, for one thing, beautifully shot, with an impressive feel for the poetry of faces and natural phenomena. Mr. Mundruczo’s deft use of sound — lapping wavelets and croaking frogs punctuated by bursts of music — suggests emotions that his characters are too taciturn to articulate. The story, minimal as it is, has some interesting gothic implications. A young man (played by Felix Lajko) returns home to a Hungarian river settlement after a long absence and encounters his mother and her male companion, who don’t appear very glad to see him, and his sister (played by Orsi Toth), who does. (She also breaks the no-smiling rule, with dire consequences.) The two of them start building a house together in the wetlands, a quasi- (and then not-so-quasi-) incestuous arrangement that is not well received by most of the locals. At the end, the sister’s pet turtle waddles through the reeds and swims away.
Well and good. The problem is that “Delta,” as much as any so-so Hollywood romantic comedy, seems content to live inside the bubble of its limited ambitions. It is hard to imagine an audience for this film except in places like Cannes. That is not necessarily because the outside public is incurious or unsophisticated, but rather because “Delta” makes no particular effort to reach beyond the international coterie of critics and programmers who see it out of duty and devotion. It’s a movie for people who like this kind of movie.
And I’m happy to admit I’m one of them. The festival film — slow, difficult, formally austere — can be a welcome antidote to the fast-moving, accessible movies that thrive in the sphere of commercial cinema. But it is also worth remembering — and “Delta” is hardly the only film here to remind me — that art movies, too, are susceptible to formula and cliché. — A. O. SCOTT