Thursday, March 11, 2010

DELTA, Kornél Mundruczó's movie-made-twice, debuts; screenwriter Q&A

Woody Allen did it once. But that was intentional on the part of the filmmaker.  When Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó (shown below) was nearly finished filming DELTA, which finally opens in New York this week, his leading actor suddenly died. The film-
maker had to begin again and -- given the chemistry that exists between actors -- an almost entirely new cast was recruited, and the entire film was shot a second time.

While TrustMovies finds some worthwhile things about this second attempt, he wishes he might have seen the first one, in which, according to its screenwriter Yvette Biro (see the Q&A that follows), changes occurred in this second filming that, to TM's mind, renders the finished movie heavy-handed.  It almost appears that the story's ending was where the moviemakers started, working backwards and piecing together a plot that would ensure their planned finale.

A young man returns to his "home" in a Hungarian town located along the Danube.  There, his father has died, his mother taken up with a new man, while his sister, with whom he appears to have had little previous acquaintance, works in the family's bar.  The young man clearly is not welcomed, except by the sister, but he sets up living quarters in an old family shack by the river.  As sis and bro grow closer, they are warned repeatedly yet pay no mind. Literally everyone we meet in this movie -- except brother, sister and an uncle -- is downright unpleasant, and when complications ensue (don't they always?), there is little question what will happen.

The views of the Danube are lovely indeed, but the humanity we wallow with quickly grow tiresome.  All of its activities are joyless and bleak. Not one speaks much, so there is little dialog in the film, and this is probably just as well.  The film's slow pace allows us to consider the society of eastern Europe, under the thumbs of feudal lords, the aristocracy, Communist dictatorships and finally -- oh god, no -- some bastardized form of Capitalism, reducing the populace to a bunch of petty, nasty, small-minded hypocrites.

Delta is full of interesting shots: silhouettes and bodily extremities; only after some time has passed does the director allow us many close-ups of his characters.  The "hero" in particular (he's played by Felix Lajko, above right) remains a mystery.  Laconic in the extreme, he finally turns from low-key passive into someone hot and fraught.  Sister, too (the actress is Orsolya Toth, shown above and below), is a girl of few words, yet both performers are attractive and interesting enough to hold our attention.  You could call the movie "primal," though in modern times, backward seems more appopriate.  Facets is releasing Delta, which opens this Friday, March 12 at the Cinema Village in New York City.


After viewing Delta and learning that its screenwriter Yvette Biro was here in the U.S., we arranged for a very short Q&A via email. In the correspondence that follows, TrustMovies appears in boldface, while Yvette's response is shown in standard type. (There are spoilers aplenty below, so if you intend to see the movie, come back to the Q&A afterward.)

Were you always connected with the movie in both versions, the earlier one featuring the actor who died suddenly, and the current version? If so, how was it to work with a different cast on the same material? Did you have to make a number of scripts changes to accommodate the new cast? Finally, do you feel that the movie might be better in this later version?

The first version was truly different because we were closer to the original-classical Electra story. In this one, the murder of the father (though only as the basic situation and departure point,) defined the Electra's motivations and later the brother’s actions. It was their passion of taking revenge on the mother and her new accomplice-lover. Also, Electra was on the side of the people, against the rudeness of the new “governing power.” In a bit more hopeful ending, only the brother could escape, Electra became a victim, perishing in the fight.

With the tragic death of the original actor who played the brother we had to simplify the story, focusing more on the relationship of the siblings. They became naturally close to each other in this hostile environment, having in the background the denied crime. The restrained incest was always there.

The film is considered Hungarian, I believe, yet it is set in Romania, in what looks like a small town, amongst people who have what we would call here in the USA, a very “small-town” mentality: unpleasant, small-minded, hypocritical, nasty, angry, jealous, murderous, in fact. Is Romania the country of choice for folk who mirror these adjectives, or might the same thing be found in the small towns of Hungary (or Germany, where, I believe, some of the production money came from)?

Right, the film is Hungarian but the physical environment had its inspiring function with its natural beauty and peacefulness. It was the landscape that had its primordial force in the articulation of the story: maintaining the remoteness, without the overemphasized social or ethnic background.

Did you or the director ever envision any other outcome for these characters? Could the story have taken any path that might have proven more hopeful?

We found that the wonderful idea to build a house, to work together, is simple and by principle, great, showing hope and looking for a better future. This common understanding and closeness are more significant than the guarded incest. Their love becomes natural, though timid, and not a scandalous, erotic sin.

The film is odd and interesting because it sets up a taboo (incest) and then breaks it -- partially because the possible mates that these two characters have to choose from seems a pretty puny bunch: They can either choose each other, which is, in most societies, a no-no, or pick someone from the gallery of creeps on display. Only the girl’s uncle seems remotely like a decent guy. Whoops -- that would be semi-incestuous, too. Any thoughts on this, which actually plays into question #3, above.

Yes. Thus the solution that they are not only excommunicated but punished to death became an unfortunately undeniable truth today: “Otherness” and having different habits, ways of living, is rarely accepted, and intolerance and hatred can often be regrettably violent.

With this sorrowful recognition we got closer to our everyday experience.

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