Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Goodbye Fate!

This is a very British film, even though it is set in Romania and there is no English dialogue.  It is British because of its irony and the emotional control that allows the irony so much prominence.  Here is a movie that has been thought out quite coolly.  This has its risks, of course.  The film exposed to all the dangers of too much self-consciousness; such as, for example, skirting too close to the edge of plot; indeed, there are times when it almost falls over that edge - the ending just a little too good, and it is good, to feel completely true.  The mind that created this film likes puzzles.  It first creates them.  Then it solves them beautifully…

It is not only the plot that is carefully worked out.  Its texture has also been consciously planned; some of the images reading like quotations, particularly from Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, another film set amongst the Carpathians.  The result is a beautifully decorated labyrinth that the characters must cautiously traverse if they are to find their freedom amongst the high peaks and plains of their native countryside.  Like the great artist Strickland copies I have wandered off into metaphor… To return to a more prosaic English: although imprisoned inside a plot and dressed up in national costume these characters have enough individuality (that is: enough instinct) to be free; like Soviet citizens they can avoid The Plan, even though it determines much of their behaviour.  This film is thus more than a pastiche.  It is a genuine work of art; the director even using some of the (overworked) conventions of a genre movie to create his own ironic effects, generating meanings that are both interesting and original.

Paradjanov is a major influence on this picture.  The image of the sheep fanning out across the fields, for example, is a direct quote; while in the last scene the boy’s “mama!” and that final fatal blow are direct references to “Olekso!  Olekso!” and the falling tree that opens the Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, that odd but resonant masterpiece.  Katalin Varga is a self-conscious film, which advertises its knowingness, albeit quietly; for although Strickland is using similar material, such as the blood feud of isolated rural communities - that instrument of the past’s power -, he is after very different effects from his Soviet mentor.

This is a film set in the late 20th century, and contains all the self-consciousness of modern times.  It is a place where the individual, self-consciously separated from their community, lives a double existence – openly in the society and secretly inside their own heads.  Outside, on the streets and amongst the public buildings, there is the long tradition of beliefs, codes and rituals which guide conduct and condition thought; an old language its members inherit, hand on and modify only slightly.  Inside is Katalin Varga, a woman only too aware that her relationship to her community is false; her inner life holding onto a horrible secret she must hide from the villagers who would expel her if they knew the truth.  Her son is a metaphor for this divided world.  Until her confession everyone believes he is the son of Katalin’s husband; an ordinary boy living in a nondescript village (that seems to exist outside time).  This is not so.  Obán is an innocent who exists inside a fiction that his mother has created so as to protect herself from the unforgiving morality of her illiberal neighbours.  Katalin Varga a very modern woman even though she looks like a nineteenth century peasant. 

The modern world.  So attractive! at least to the unwary.  The promises are large, and the costs… there don’t seem to be any.  Freedom a rollercoaster ride where danger is nothing more than a few minutes of exhilarating fun; exciting and safe, the screams are of laughter not fear.  A myth, of course, as Katalin has discovered.

For a long time we can place neither the location nor the period.  And so the questions bounce about the room… Where is it set?  What century are we in?  Who are these people?  We are confused to good advantage.  The inside of a house suggests the early 20th century, but other details, such as the horse and cart, look back to an older time.  It is only when Katalin arrives in a city and calls her husband on a mobile phone do we realise this film is set in the here and now.  It is this disjunction between two worlds that this movie explores; even the cleverly contrived double plot embodies it – the revenge motif has two very different outcomes.  

There is the traditional rural society, with its ancestral customs that both bind the community’s members together and polices them.  This creates a shared identity and a feeling of belonging, although its moral code is also harsh and unforgiving; it has a tendency to expel transgressives and can be suspicious and cruel to strangers.  Its morality includes the blood feud.  For this is a culture where justice is both highly personal and strongly collective; and where a community shares the pain of each one of its victims, so that if an outsider hurts one member he hurts them all.i  

Then there is the modern city.  What a wonderful instrument!  It gives Katalin the freedom to roam beyond her immediate environment, allowing her to explore all of Romania and to create her own identity.  So compelling!  But also so full of risk…  For such freedom has its hidden dangers, especially when it meets the old ancestors on their own ground; a place where freedom can be misconstrued as licence, and cruelty sold as justice.  Katalin made aware of modernity’s limits only when it is too late, and her life is ruined.  If we wanted to be melodramatic we could argue that Katalin Varga has been raped by the modern world.  Although this stretches an argument it does not break it, because if it weren’t for the 20th century she would not have found herself in a stranger’s car in a distant province of Romania, and a victim of sexual brutality.

The facts of the film are more mundane.  As a young woman Katalin hitched hiked in a remote and poor part of the country.  One day two men picked her up, and one of them raped her.  She becomes pregnant.  Then for many years she lives quietly in a small rural community, married to the man she loves.  Unable to cope with the strain of her own past she eventually confides the truth to a friend; but they are overheard; the villagers find out, and her husband asks her to leave.  Taking Obán with her Katalin sets out on a quest to avenge the original crime.

Her actions could be seen as a variation on an old pattern.  This film, however, won’t allow us such an easy interpretation.  Katalin Varga is not about the iron law of fate, which is often associated with an essentially masculine world of public duty and personal honour, where women, because they represent emotion and sex, those great disturbers of law and a settled order, are portrayed as the agents of destruction.  This film is concerned with an essentially female environment, and is dominated by feeling and contingency and unintended consequences.  This is a modern world where the unexpected always gets in the way of, and ruins, the pre-ordained plan.

It is why the car is so important in this movie; its metaphorical meaning very different from the one to which we are accustomed.  Here it is associated with chance (Katalin is unlucky to be picked up by the wrong man) and violence (the victim’s relatives search for her in their vehicle).  The car is a metaphor for the way modern technology destroys the insularity and the safety of small communities; tourists appearing out of nowhere to bring with them new ideas and new things to desire; thugs free to tour the region to hunt down their victims.  A car is a destructive force, although on first appearance it promises a wonderful adventure; such as a cheap trip across Romania for an intelligent and beautiful girl before she settles down to marriage.  For Katalin freedom has meant degradation, repression, and the creation of an artificial life – she is knowingly cut off from own her community until she confides in Zsuzsa.  Freedom!  What an ugly word when we find out what it really means.

Irony is umbilically linked to self-consciousness, which in turn slips easily into make-believe; the thugs who want to kill Katalin pretend to be cops, although they look like Neanderthals.   They are the modern world gone wrong, the 20th century shipwrecked on the inertia and brutality of the old ways of life.  These thugs are the friends and relatives of the man Katalin murders; they are also the first people we see in a tricksy opening scene that is repeated later in the movie, and which produces an odd but intended effect; for these men are the agents of the classic revenge motif which this film complicates, disguises and eventually destroys in what appears to be the main plot - Katalin’s journey of retribution.  In the modern world vengeance is not simple or straightforward, because contingency always gets in the way.  This was not the case in older communities, where relatively small populations and their close proximity allowed for far greater success; thus in the old myths fate is implacable and always metes out its justice; one death inevitably leading to a string of others until the gods intervene to restore the social equilibrium.  Genre is very close to myth, using plot to replace the deterministic laws of classical tragedy.  In this film the thriller aspect, to which plot is essential, is used to uphold the mythic elements of tragedy which, despite the failure of Katalin’s quest, finds a way of asserting itself, so that in the end the old ideas do triumph over the new.  To save myth from modern positivism the thugs must have the first and the last say; their modernity – the car, the police fictions, the mobile phones – are merely rags that cannot hide their medieval nature, which insists on the rightful end to this tragic drama - the murderess must die for the act that she has done.  However, if Katalin could have reached the city… modern justice may have taken a more lenient view; and fate would have had to submit to the actions of individual men and women.  Plot, by allowing for chance and free will, replaces a universally determined law with contingent realism – it is only probable that the thugs will get Katalin because she remains inside their territory.  The gods no longer decide these things, Man makes the decisions now, although some still ask God for help; one irony in a film filled with ironies.

When she meets her rapist Katalin finds she cannot kill him.  The friendship between him and her son, the innocence of his wife, and his own pathetic reaction – he is a good man - erases her violent passion, and she lacks the pathology to kill in cold blood.  “This not what I imagined”, she says, when they talk late into the evening; and then adds with disgust: “I am so disappointed!”  Katalin has been defeated by the banality of what she has encountered.  Her quest has been futile.  She has only killed the man who did nothing but stand aside and laugh; an act that both terrifies and dismays her, and which was completely unnecessary – to have hurt and scared him would have been sufficient punishment.  She is now the criminal.  Even worse, Obán actually son likes his father, an unintended and painful outcome, which is compounded by irony: “he thinks we are lovers”, Katalin spits out in violent sarcasm.  She has lost control; her tragedy dropping off into psychological realism, with her feelings defeating her ideas and her pre-arranged plans.  It even seems possible she could lose Obán, who, reacting strongly against her dislike of Antal, runs off into the woods when he is told the truth. 

It is accidents that create the greatest miseries.  The past would have lain in peace - like an old married couple under a crocheted quilt - if the woman hadn’t overhead Katalin’s confession to Zsuzsa.  Now it is Etelka, whose shadowed profile looks like a shadow puppet in a shadow play, who overhears Katalin’s conversation with her husband; the trigger for another tragic event.  Her heroic saint has been transformed into an ugly brute, and she has not the strength to live with such a repulsive truth.ii  It is accident not fate that rules these unlucky lives, although something of the old law remains; the reason the thugs can catch up with Katalin in the woods where she is looking for Obán.  This final scene is the longest and most powerful reference to Paradjanov’s great work; yet it is very different in spirit and intent, dominated, as it is, by that last and fatal irony: it is her killers and not her son who answer her calls.  Compared with the original all the important details in this scene have been reversed; surely a cinematic comment on the different meanings this film is after; Katalin Varga showing a world where the old is suffused but not totally destroyed by the intrusions of the new; the conflict between them corrupting them both.  Katalin set out to avenge her rape and her expulsion from her husband, but then she becomes a victim of a blood feud that she unnecessarily creates (for by now she knows Zsigmond wants her back); her own death then consecrated by religious belief, her killers saying a prayer to justify their deed (their Christianity doesn’t require turning the other cheek). Everything is man made.  All is contingent.  Katalin so happy the moment they grabbed her; thinking her son was safe.  Like bluebells in a wood, ironies are everywhere in this movie.

Katalin has been trapped inside somebody else’s plot, and must submit to their ending; although she rebels even then – her last image a memory of herself and Obán in an open field.  Freedom against necessity?  Of course!  All tragedies raise questions about these fundamental mysteries.  However, this is a modern film, and very British, and so typically questions the old dichotomies, bringing in a third idea – chance -, which it argues is the most powerful of all.  The underlying assumption here is that these ideas are mental products of different types of society, each secreting the forms of its thought into the minds of its members.iii  Katalin can be free even in the moment of her death because her mind is modern.  Her body, though, has to succumb to the old retributive justice because the killers’ mentality is imprisoned in the past.

Even at the end of the ending the tension between these two ways of life continues. Thus with a knife at her throat Katalin resists, eliciting the comment “you are a hard madam” from her attackers.  Here is a woman who has been forced to be free.  Katalin only ever wanted to live an ordinary married life, her excommunication from the village turning her into an unwilling knight-errant.  Unable to repress her memories she talks to a friend and is expelled, and it is this isolation and weakness, and not her strength or her righteous anger, that causes her to seek out revenge.  And yet, once on the road, she succumbs to the logic of the situation and becomes a moral avenger.iv  Katalin is not an instrument of fate.  Arising out of a series of accidents she has become a self-fashioned tool who is trying to craft her own destiny.  It is she, and not some divine law, that has turned her into a tragic heroine.  It is also the reason why she ultimately fails, and why contingency defeats all her plans.  No gods can help.  Katalin Varga is on her own.

Why didn’t she confess to a priest or to her husband?  “Because I thought I would lose you” is her reply to Zsigmond’s question.  Katalin is alone.  The rape has made her so.  She loves her son but he is a constant reminder of her violation, cutting her off from the unselfconscious life.  Mentally she is isolated from her community; tied to a past that is her own, and nobody else’s.  Here is the source of her weakness; Katalin Varga lacking the power of tradition to help her complete her task and revenge the original injustice.  Individuals are too weak to call down fate.  One person cannot create a divine law. 

Again and again the simple patterns of a rural community are complicated by the mobility of the modern world; thus by the time she gets to her abuser Katalin’s murderous passion has ended. Cut adrift from the bonds of community, she doesn’t have the psychological reinforcements to goad and help her complete her plan.  Always she is at the mercy of events and her own feelings; which are unstable and in constant flux; hence by the time she finds her rapist she knows that Zsigmond wants her back, the more emollient emotions returning to her consciousness.

Very little is fixed and determined in this film until Katalin kills Gergely, and so exposes herself to the deterministic laws of an old society which does have the power to destroy her (because she is alone inside its territory).  Fate still lives on within the old communities, and for as long as she stays there Katalin must pay obedience to its way of life.

She is oddly free.  Her freedom embodied in the plethora of changes her appearance undergoes during the course of her journey.  In one scene we see the emaciated (and hard) face of a poor peasant, in another the soft and full features of a young beauty.  There’s the knowing cocotte her face alive with thought and controlled emotion; a clever actress all too aware of the effects she is creating (in the licentious man she wishes to kill).  Then suddenly Katalin is the romantic mother looking lovingly down at her son.  When the thugs first arrive we see a terrified innocent running away from the murder scene (actually she sits on a cart as it leaves the village).  Some of these are self-conscious roles; but most are instinctive reactions to the moment, much of which is simply osmosis, her love and her attractiveness suffusing the screen when she lies on a comfy bed with Obán.

In the film’s most powerful scene Katalin loses herself to her own brilliant performance.  She is in a boat on the river with Antal and his wife.  They are talking inconsequentially when suddenly Katalin contradicts Etelka: “my husband is not Obán’s father”.  Their small talk has hit a mine, which sinks it.  Free at last Katalin now tells the story of her rape, which is full of vivid and exact detail, such as the pain of a hard prick when penetrates a dry cunt.  As she talks she starts to enjoy herself, carried away both by her storytelling skill and by her evident power over Antal, who becomes increasingly uncomfortable; aware now of the identity of this stranger he is tense, clumsy and silent.  Katalin laughs, is playful and ironic, and lies back in the boat until her head is over the bow, her breasts rising up like two small (Carpathian?) hills.  She finishes the story with the song the two men sang when they left her naked and in excoriating pain.  She’s having fun!  Katalin is enjoying herself as she tortures Antal with her reminiscences (and with her luxuriating body), terrifying him with the uncertainty of her ending – will she tell or won’t she?  Katalin talks about the animals that came and covered her naked body with flowers and bushes.  She mentions the doe who told her Jesus Christ died for the sins of mankind.  “And whose sins did I die for…” was her reply.v  Does she really believe this?  Is she mad?  Neither seems probable.  More likely they are a flight of fancy that captures the essence of her feelings; Katalin letting herself go, using all the vividness and colour of her imagination to recreate the emotional truth of those terrible moments.  She is performing! and wonderfully alive, although her message is horrible – after the rape, she says, she was spiritually lost; not even Jesus Christ could save her.  Now we know why she doesn’t enter a church, although she has passed a number on her travels.  Her faith has gone.  It is a tragic loss, for a confession, by easing the burden of the past, may well have saved her.

It is a scintillating performance, which is suffused with ironic bitterness: Etelka is not aware that this story is about her husband, whom she believes is a gentle and kind man, even though he looks like Salvador Dali.  This is Katalin’s revenge.  It is not enough.  The upshot of her travels: one fantastic performance, and the deaths of herself, an innocent and a 0.3333 accomplice.  This is the tragedy.  Fate has collapsed into contingency, which now decides who will live or who will die (and who lives with whom – Obán may yet reside with the man who raped his mother).  This is the modern world, where there is no simple moral plan.  England has conquered Eastern Europe, and its empiricism is in charge.  Inevitably its little sister Irony comes along for the ride; and it is she that kills the soul.  She certainly kills Katalin Varga.

(Review: Katalin Varga)

[i] For the best analysis see Émile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.
[ii] We could argue this is retribution for Antal’s crime.  However, Etelka is an innocent, and her tragedy is an unintended consequence of Katalin’s inability to kill him (she can talk revenge but she cannot do it).  If anything her death represents a loss of faith – in her saintly husband. 
[iii] For a good overview of these ideas see Mary Douglas’ Natural Symbols.
[iv] By the time she reaches the city a reconciliation with her husband seems possible; it is a certainty before she meets Antal.  That is, by the time she actually commits revenge its proximate cause, her expulsion, has been removed.
[v] Compare this with the doe in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.  There it represents the eternal spirit of a dead woman.  The lovers can transcend the community but they cannot live inside it.  The suggestion is that older pagan beliefs still dominate the society; Christianity a formal and ritualistic religion only for the majority of the population.  (See my Pagan People for analysis.)


  1. Another point of similarity between this film and "Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors" is the use of sound to create mood and dramatic tension. Strickland's detailed sound design and use of music contributes much towards the effectiveness of the film. Is it irony that makes the film British, though? Certainly the emotional control is there, but you could say this is a characteristic 'feel' of many other European films.

  2. I was thinking of this film in relation to Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, and I wanted to emphasise the contrast; and its irony seemed the most distinctive feature. However, I should have qualified this statement massively.

    It is the understatement that gives it a British feel, together with the importance given to contingency. The latter is a modern idea for sure, but one which is integral to the British identity; we even created a philosophy to justify it - empiricism. Thus while the plot is carefully worked out there is a somewhat disjointed feel to the film, which arises from its reliance on individual character and the specific details of discrete events. It is this which makes it feel British; yet it is done so quietly that we could miss these aspects of the plot, believing instead that fate really does determine Katalin Varga’s destiny.

    Of course, I have not exhausted the list…