Artistic and insightful, this sharply well-made film has an emotional resonance that becomes thoroughly haunting as the story travels to places we don't expect it to go. A sense of foreboding terror keeps us gripped, as does an underlying hope.
After a dark secret comes out, Katalin (Peter) takes her bright 10-year-old son Orban (Tanko) and leaves her loving husband Zsigmond (Matray) on an enigmatic journey across Romania. Orban thinks they're going to see his grandmother, but Katalin is on a mission as she tracks down the married Gergely (Giacomello) and plays along as he tries to seduce her. Soon she and Orban are on the run followed by an angry mob, heading for an isolated village where they have an unexpected encounter with Antal (Palffy) and his wife Etelka (Kantor).
Watching Katalin's odyssey is often uncomfortable, as she confronts a dark truth after years of hoping it would never emerge into the light of day.
First-time British filmmaker Strickland gives the story a mythical quality, as Katalin and her son travel by horse-drawn cart even though this isn't a period film (she also has a mobile phone). This bleak pilgrimage to reluctantly face the past is punctuated by both tenderness and violence. And as a result, Katalin's quest becomes derailed in revelatory ways, right up to the gasp-inducing final shot.
Peter gives a subtle, layered performance, fully inhabiting this strong, wild, vulnerable woman who's willing to do whatever it takes to protect her son.
Several scenes play out like a thriller, while others overflow with emotion.
The scene in which she tells her story, in astonishing detail, while on a boat ride with Antal and Etelka is pure cinematic magic--both unnerving and deeply moving. And all of the characters feel fully formed.
Strickland captures each scene with inventive camerawork (by cinematographer Mark Gyori) that weaves nature into the fabric of Katalin's journey. The settings are evoked with a fine use of light and shadow, plus a cleverly unsettling sound mix that blends tonal music with ambient noise. Altogether, this effectively captures both the large and small stories: an old culture in which people have lived the same way for generations, and the tale of an innocent young girl who grew up to discover a big bad world where redemption doesn't come cheap.