"Delta": Building New Lives, New Cinema By João Antunes

in 61st Cannes Film Festival

by João Antunes

There’s a strong image in Delta, the third feature from young filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó and the Hungarian entry in competition for the 61st Cannes Golden Palm, that can summarize its main themes. In order to build their house right in the middle of a river located in the Romanian Danube delta region, the two central protagonists have to construct a wooden footbridge, plank by plank.

Considered from a cinematic point of view, it has a double meaning, at least. The visual impact of the scene is unmistakable, as part and parcel of the general aesthetics of the movie. We can also consider this smooth and slow process as a way to draw us, the viewer, into the general mood of the piece.

But both times I saw the film, it was impossible for me not to see it as a metaphor for the cinema itself. Each board representing one of the 24 images per second we see on screen, and the empty space in between each of them the things we sometimes don’t see in a movie, although they’re there.

Of course, this footbridge — a sort of gangplank extended between two shores — has its own dramatic function in the movie. It’s the way — in both a literal and spiritual sense — the two characters utilize to escape from the rest of the world and find their own refuge. If, that is, the world outside simply allowed them to, which is everything the movie’s about.

He and She, no names attached to the characters, are brother and sister. He just came back to this beautiful but wild and isolated landscape. And in the middle of this complex system of rivers, channels and islands, he is confronted with another unimaginable reality: a young sister he did not know he had, and with whom he immediately falls in love.

Of course, this changes everything, not much for them, but for the dramatic purpose of the movie and its connection with the viewer. However, via the tenderness and especially the purity — maybe we can even call it chastity — of Mundruczó’s camera, even when trained upon the hardest sequences of rape and murder, we are made to believe, almost immediately, that incest is not the main goal of the director’s movie.

Finally, Delta, in its full geographical and metaphorical sense, is a movie about difference and its acceptance — or not. The theme is not new, and unfortunately — due to its connection with the “real” world — it will be with us for so long a time as intolerance for others still prevails, as part of human nature. This is also another one of Delta’s riches, even if cruel: the non-political message, surpassed by the psychological portrait of a community that felt menaced by the presence of the strange.

Kornél Mundruczó has also shot a movie about death. The first male actor cast as “He” died during the shooting. And after some time considering if he should continue with the project or not, Mundruczó decided to cast the film’s young composer — a non-actor — as the main character. Surprisingly or not, he does his job in a perfect way. But, admitting the harshness of the experience, he has announced he is not going to go through it again. It’s as if, alongside his character, the actor in it was killed, not capable of experiencing again, life or film.

From a cinematic point of view, Delta is as beautiful as it is tragic. Kornél Mundruczó has obviously seen some of the Hungarian masters’ work, like Miklos Jancsó or Béla Tarr. But he does not set out to copy them. His movie is original, fresh and courageous, following the example of his two first features, Pleasant Days (Szép napok, Silver Leopard, Locarno 2002), and Johanna (Cannes, “Un Certain Regard”, 2005). Delta shows us that Hungarian cinema is again on the map, and that universal themes can bring us together if the movie experience is enriching and enlightening, as is the case here.