Blue Danube Delta Blues
Life must remain bone-basic and brutal in the former east bloc nations; or else their bare-bones, bitterly ironic filmmakers have to make do with next to nothing, not even Hollywood’s bright red blood simulators; or more likely both. At Lincoln Center’s New Films from Hungary, for example, director-co-writer Kornél Mundruczó’s Delta is a color-drained tale of tragic family outcome worthy of Eugene O’Neill, with no clear demarcation between the good and the bad, and certainly no cosmic, let alone human, justice.
In subtitled Hungarian, though filmed around Sulina, in Romania’s grey-skied Black Sea Mouths of the Danube of reeds, marshes, canals, islets and boats, it is spare in color and music, in outward shows of emotion and dialogue. It is a non-committal vision of the two protagonists, their two nearest relatives, and the fisherfolk and lumberers who slug vodka against the damp cold and lead unthinking lives of tradition, taboo, and an order not far above that of the pigs they slaughter or fish they catch.
Unannounced, unexpected and scarcely named, Mihail (Félix Lajkó, who also did the music and stepped in to act on the sudden death of Lajos Bertók) returns to a port hometown, thirtyish, unmarried and ungroomed but with money, presumably from his job somewhere at a zoo where he had also nursed an abandoned woman whose baby was stillborn and who disappeared and left him a silver cup. He is back “for good,” he tells his mother (Lili Monori) in the tavern she runs with her surly lover or maybe second husband (Sándor Gáspár) and daughter Fauna (Orsolya Tóth) from the first marriage.
Lithe Fauna waitresses but, not openly voicing it, follows her own drummer enough that the lover/husband “would hit you if you were my daughter” and follows the short-skirted young woman with sullen, un-stepfatherly eyes. Introduced to the returned brother she has not known, she accompanies him to the frog-and-turtle populated shore where they stay in a hut, order timber and tools, and build an unnecessarily long jetty out to where he plans to build a house.
She cooks well, he remarks in few words, though her carpentry skills are not impressive. Neither are his, though with a little help from her uncle and other townies, the timber frame goes up. She washes clothing as well, even if it is never changed. Sartorial concerns are not much with the locals, either, though, even if their talk is not distinguishable and they themselves don’t emerge beyond their highlight-and-shadows faces, what does bother them is the siblings’ spending unchaperoned nights under the same roof.
Contrary to such whisperings, nothing untoward has yet occurred between the two. The cause of her sudden illness will not be revealed here, but “when it’s needed [Mihail] is good at this” nursing and brings her through despair and dangerous fever.
The mother and her man do not attend, but tavern customers and others make the boat trip out to the still-incomplete dwelling, invited to an open-air meal to celebrate the brother and sister’s plentiful catch from the waters. Alcohol flows freely around the bonfire, as tempers and resentments and desire are fueled to overflowing.
The climax is as unexpected as it is downplayed. The depressing ending carries not a ripple of hope for now or the future. The first nation ever to nationalize its film industry, under Communists in 1919 -- an action repeated in 1948 -- present-day Hungary finds its film people up against the financial wall, with numbers of them having emigrated to greener pastures. Despite home front deprivation, films like Delta give evidence, however, of Budapest’s reserve of talent and promise.
(Released by Kinosmith; not rated by MPAA.)