There’s no getting around the matter - Kornél Mundruczó’s third feature film Delta is one of those films that is going to sharply divide audiences. Some will find its slow pace interminable, where nothing of real note happens until the latter part of the film, and what does then occur is likely to provoke reactions of extreme distaste. For others, the uncompromising stance of the taboo subject matter – that of incest between a brother and a sister, as well as that of the rape of a young woman by her stepfather – combined with the direct manner in which it is handled in contrast to the natural beauty of the locations, could provide a fertile environment of indefinable resonances for the viewer to impose upon it their own significance and meaning.
It doesn’t help that the characters here are a rather taciturn bunch, not given to expressing much in words, but certainly saying much more through gestures and behaviour that could perhaps at best be described as intimidatory. This is the reception that is in store for a young man Mihail (Félix Lajkó) who returns to the Danube delta after a number of year’s absence, not being made welcome either by his family or by the natives of the region who visit the bar owned by his mother and stepfather (Lili Monori and Sándor Gáspár). The locals are not even willing to do business with the man, but when presented with good hard cash, they reluctantly sell Mihail the wood he needs to build a house for himself out in the middle of one of the delta’s waterways. Their attitude to the man doesn’t improve any when his sister Fauna (Orsolya Tóth) leaves the home where she has doubtless been much abused, to work and live alongside him, in a way that is closer than that of brother and sister.
If you consider it along the lines of Terence Malick, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Andrei Tarkovsky and Mundruczó’s compatriot (and sometime producer) Béla Tarr, that will give you some indication of the environment that Delta works within and indeed the pace under which all this progresses. Taking place completely within the confines of, unsurprisingly, a delta, there is nothing in the film that ties it to a specific time or place. We’re talking about man at one with nature or in a struggle with basic nature on a primitive archetypal level, about family, society and freedom – divesting these large subjects of the traditional baggage that they carry and taking them right back to a basic level. And perhaps we should expect nothing less from a director whose first film Pleasant Days similarly explored questions of sexuality and its relationship with violence and whose second, Johanna, imposed a Joan of Arc character into a modern day setting of a Hungarian hospital, considered notions of sexuality with healing and was filmed as a full-blown modern opera.
The manner in which the subject matter of a film like Delta is handled by Mundruczó then is, to say the least, somewhat portentous, even to the extent that it gives rise to resonances of almost biblical nature. The beauty and significance of the Danube delta location is inescapable, its significance that of a kind of Garden of Eden, a fertile environment at the mouth of a river, a cradle of civilisation expanding out into the world – a Celtic civilisation perhaps, with all the implications on character traits that come with it – and with it some sense of original sin, a mark of Cain, and even some final bloodstained images that evoke the basket of Moses floating down the river to be found in reeds. This is highly evocative and indeed provocative imagery the purpose of which is likely to confuse as much as provoke thought, but there is no doubt that it carries with it a certain undeniable power.
That power ultimately doesn’t rely simply on the shock nature of Delta’s taboo subject or indeed the notion of biblical resonance and symbolism. Perhaps surprisingly, for all the violence, abuse, death and murder, the overriding impression left by Delta is one of beauty and sadness - the wonder of the world, nature, creation and humanity, and the sad inevitability that we’ll just end up messing the whole thing up out of basic human greed, intolerance, stupidity and sheer bloody-mindedness.