A putatively humanistic film that succeeds more indelibly as a mythic image-poem, Kornél Mundruczó’s Delta is, much like the career-capping experiments that form Gus Van Sant’s bewitching Death Trilogy, both a starry-eyed paean to and a ham-fisted mangling of the inimitable aesthetics of fellow Hungarian countryman (and occasional Mundruczó co-producer) Béla Tarr. Impressively, Mundruczó grasps Tarr’s preference for corporeal, spatial presence over behavioral histrionics, and the lyrical benefits thereof: Félix Lajkó and Orsolya Tóth, who portray newly discovered half-siblings involved in an ambiguously limerent, occasionally sexual relationship, seem to have been cast purely for their sharp, bucolic whiskers and pale, angular waifishness respectively, and after they retreat from the gnarled disdain of their home village to the false security of the moistly serene Danube Delta their plaintively stoic bodies melt into the verdant landscape. But another key element of Tarr’s essence is to explore ideas for stories rather than to enforce strict plots—minor details that add flesh to his characters arrive spontaneously and then swiftly disintegrate—and amorphous, sloth-paced narratives can infuriate audiences just as easily as it can empower them.
The plot of Delta doesn’t so much unfold as languidly stumble through moments of startling visual grace—abetted intensely by the oneiric ruralism of the geography, a setting so singularly elysian one almost expects incest to hang as ripely from the vines as it did for Adam and Eve’s progeny—and equally jarring violence. There’s not much of an explanation for the brother-sister coupling at the core of the movie either, aside from its folkloric inevitability; Mihail (Félix Lajkó) returns to his mother’s hut after years of absence and finds her living with a sneering, chauvinistic lover (Sándor Gáspár) and a daughter, Fauna (Orsolya Tóth) whom Mihail seems to fall for from the moment she wipes the slaughtered porcine blood off her hands to offer him a chaste hug. Mundruczó attempts to move from there without filling in unnecessary details (or crucial ones, for that matter), concentrating instead on the photographic potential of his central conflict and his protagonists’ attempts to resolve it by building their own home above a majestic nearby river, but he operates a far less confident camera than Tarr does.
A bitterly gratuitous rape that cracks act two wide open, complete with pulpy shots of semen streaking the trembling thighs of the victim, is observed largely from a clichéd, alienating distance, while intimate scenes that Mihail and Fauna share with their totemistic red-eared silder—a kind of confusedly dwarfed cousin of the whale carcass from Werckmeister Harmonies—are shot in uniformly comfy medium-wide shots. Elsewhere, scenes linger on with ostensible profundity but lack the reverential craftsmanship that would necessitate such patient editing; rather than feeling enveloped by starkly deliberate details, we’re distracted by a dearth of emotional complexity amid clearly unique, even cataclysmic, events. Mundruczó invests swatches of impressive film poetry in Delta, but by his puzzlingly tragic denouement the movie’s structural and formal deficiencies are nearly enough to obscure their faint power.