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Delta (Kornel Mundruczo, 2008)


     Kornel Mundruczo’s intimate drama Delta, like his last film, the gripping and dark musical Johanna, drops the name of fellow Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr in its opening credits. Although Mundruczo’s new film isn’t as distinctively slow-paced as Tarr’s work, it does make several visual allusions to it (one of the first shots recalls the opening shot of cattle slowly roaming in Satantango, for example), and presents a similar vision of small-town malaise as it drifts inexorably toward violence. Unfortunately, without Tarr’s distinctive torpor to differentiate it, the movie settles too comfortably into the realm of art house clichés.


     Admittedly, Kornel’s work behind the camera is far from undistinguished. He gets another fine performance from Johanna’s star Orsolya Tóth, effectively uses his violin-heavy score, and he has a solid compositional sensibility that results in some pretty imagery. Unfortunately, the sum of his prowess fails where it matters most. It can’t elevate this all too familiar, all too slight material. Instead of probing its characters’ behaviors, it is content to look striking. Delta, which was reshot from the start when its original lead actor died midway through production, ends up feeling half-baked and distinctly underdeveloped. Its lack of content makes its style feel pretentious and misplaced.


     Upon its showing at the Cannes film festival, some critics compared Delta to Malick’s Days of Heaven, and while it’s easy to understand why (there’s plenty of sunlit nature photography and the sparse plot develops as an outdoor chamber drama). Alas, it doesn’t cast a spell in the same way as Malick’s work, leaving its thematic musings about incest, society, and taboo behavior feeling all too academic. Indeed, the outbursts of sexual violence that provide Delta’s climax have emerged as a consistent theme throughout Mundruczo’s three features, but it’s not a theme that has seen much dramatic or visceral development. Instead, the fixation on this territory comes off like the result of a filmmaker without much sense of how to shape a narrative. Mundruczo’s Johanna turned this material into something compelling through its pervasive mood and undeniable novelty. Delta seems anemic in comparison. It doesn’t name its characters, hoping to make the story seem allegorical, or at least elemental, but the result is a movie that just makes itself hopelessly generic.



Jeremy Heilman