Delta (2008)

Keeping it in the family…

Life in a small, rural Hungarian village deep in the heart of the Danube Delta is quietly tough. The inhabitants make their living as best they can, abiding by strict traditions passed down through generations. Suddenly, into this peace like a tidal wave comes a young man (Lakjo), returning home after making his fortune in the big city. He has been away so long that he has never met his sister (Toth), a timid girl living under the strict control of her stepfather. The young man has a dream of building a timber house in the middle of the marsh and, sensing a freedom she has never known, his sister soon decides to help him. As the sibling strangers grow ever closer, their relationship causes ripples of gossip in the village, and tensions rise until they reach a tragic breaking point.

Kornel Mundruczo’s film may be hushed – dialogue is kept to a minimum and the soundtrack (composed by Lakjo) is restrained and evocative – but Delta is deeply, intensely powerful. He is a film-maker who understands the delicate subtleties of cinema, and every moment is perfectly formed within the context of the story. Take his beautiful opening sequence, in which a lingering sunset over the crystal waters of the Danube is broken by the shrill horn of the ship that carries the young man home. Effortlessly setting up the tone of the film, warning that darkness may lie even in this seeming paradise, it’s just one example of Mundruczo’s well-tuned directorial skill.

And this also allows him to handle the taboo subject matter with grace; there’s no hint of exploitation, indulgence or titillation in the relationship between brother and sister. Indeed, the focus is firmly on the reactions to their love, rather than the act itself. As if to prove this, Mundruczo underscores the emotional depth of the siblings’ relationship by contrasting its tenderness with a shocking, brutal scene between the young woman and her step-father. In the care of a heavy handed director this could have been a garish tactic; here, it serves its purpose of making the audience question just what is right and wrong in these circumstances.

But Delta doesn’t shine thanks only to its director. At its heart it has two exceptional performances by Lakjo and Toth, who understand and embrace the understated complexities of the narrative. The air between them crackles as they exchange the briefest of looks, the smallest of touches and you simply can’t help but be drawn into their world, wishing them happiness despite the wealth of social rules they are breaking underfoot.

And that, in the end, is surely Mundruczo’s point. Should you follow your heart or should you bow to traditional and moral pressures? It’s a testament to the strength, skill and vision of all those involved that, even thought the story deals with one of the last remaining taboos, Delta remains a gentle, moving and haunting portrait of human nature.

5 stars

Stars Felix Lakjo, Orsolya Toth
Director Kornel Mundruczo
Screenplay Kornel Mundruczo & Yvette Biro
Certificate 18
Distributor ICA
Running Time 1hr 36mins
Opening Date May 8th (at the ICA, Renoir and Key Cities)