Delta opens with a sunrise over placid waters. The sounds of the river blend with the quiet tremble of a violin. A ship’s horn blasts through the quiet, the noxious noise disrupting the delicacy of water. Next, we watch a young man walk across a farm. Before he opens a wooden door, we hear the whiny screeches of a pig. He opens the door to reveal two men dragging a pig behind a wall. A woman follows the men and stands half-obscured, staring at the young man, the pig’s squealing cutting through her gaze. The pig is butchered. Indeed, the sounds of life figure prominently before any dialogue is spoken in the film. A story has already been told through the water’s movement and the pig’s death. Director Komel Mundruczó alternately lulls and unsettles with image and sound, an effective technique for a gorgeous and musically beautiful film… about incest.
Mihail (Félix Lajkó), who replaced the lead actor after his death halfway through filming, is a young man returning home to a nearly isolated Danube delta in Romania. In his absence, his mother (Lili Monori) remarried and had a daughter named Fauna (Orsolya Tóth). The brother and sister meet, fall in love, and build a house in the middle of the water. They are ostracized from their family and the community, and an undercurrent of deep hatred for the incestuous pair finds its pulse in Delta’s final scene. It is a greek tragedy with nature as its stage.
True to the “arthouse aesthetic,” Delta contains very little dialogue, unique color pallets, and so-extended-you-feel-your-eyes-getting-heavy tracking shots. The simple approach should cushion the implausible storyline, and it does, so long as one is willing to appreciate Mátyás Erdéky’s stunning cinematography and nothing else. But for such a heavy story, there is lightweight dialogue and insufficient chemistry between the brother and sister. The decision to cast Lajkó after the death of the original lead may have scored Mundruczó an eerily beautiful soundtrack (Lajkó is a violinist, zither player, and composer), but Lajkó’s performance is dampened by reserve. His time on screen is spent gazing at the floorboards, his face hidden behind shaggy blonde hair, shoulders slumped and defeated — a reticence that should reveal stratified layers of emotion, but comes across as awkwardly empty. When Mihail takes the incestuous leap and sleeps with Fauna, we don’t really believe it; and our disbelief is not because of a Taboo, but rather, boredom. It’s not entirely Lajkó’s fault the film is so hollow, because Mundruczó relies so much on presenting an image, an angle, a visual feast that he neglects the foundation of the film: the story.
Besides the film’s aesthetics, Tóth’s performance may be the only reason to watch Delta. With eyes like moons and skin pulled taunt over bird bones, Tóth’s Fauna is both frail and resilient. True to her name, she is most naked (sometimes literally) among the creatures of the delta, and her love for a pet turtle is sweetly poignant, not corny. Despite her tiny stature, she has carpenter hands, and demonstrates strength and perseverance when helping Mihail build his house on the water. We sense her desperation to make a relationship with Mihail work, as she hammers nail after nail into strips of wood. The story’s narrative is, predictably and somewhat unfortunately, written on her body: she is raped, ridiculed, and then harassed by local men as she is forced to eat watermelon soaked in alcohol in one of the film’s most unnerving (and brilliantly staged) scenes. Fauna finds no release — even in the few quiet moments she shares with her brother — because she must subsist alone. She is the outcast in this story, not Mihail, and carries the burden with a defiant solemnity. Although there is little narrative movement, Tóth does her best to encapsulate the film’s meager emotional trajectory from hope to despair, while outshining every other performance onscreen.