Review: Valan – Valley of Angels
by Fabien Lemercier
- With his first feature film - an effective police thriller set in Transylvania - Hungarian filmmaker Béla Bagota shows promising directorial skill
"This town is turning into a living hell". A vice cop, a long-standing and deeply-rooted family wound, the disappearance of teenagers and an inspector’s return to his birth-town, isolated in the heart of the mountains and ravaged by the financial crisis, for the purposes of an inquiry… In Valan – Valley of Angels, Béla Bagota’s first feature film, unveiled in a world premiere in the 1-2 Competition of the Warsaw International Film Festival, the director brings together all the “classic” ingredients for a frenetic police thriller set in an unwholesome environment - a coded genre which allows the Hungarian filmmaker to reveal his highly developed sense of atmosphere and pace.
"They might have found Juli, there’s a body in Valan". When Péter (Csaba Krisztik) - a Brasov-based inspector who has just put an end to a brutal operation in a brothel enslaving minors - receives this phone call from his mother, a past which he has never quite managed to put to bed bobs back up to the surface (in the form of a flashback). At the end of December, twenty-two years earlier, amidst the chaos of the fall of Ceausescu’s Romanian regime, Peter’s sister Juli disappeared into thin air, practically before his very eyes, while they were being evacuated from school. Now back once again in Valan and staying with his uncle Jànos (Romania’s András Hatházi) - a former teacher who runs a hotline named Soul Savers from home in order to keep a closer eye on his wife Kati (Júlia Nyakó) who’s no longer of sound mind - Péter launches himself into a solo investigation, because the body turns out to be that of his sister, who has been hanged. And, over the past two decades, many other girls have disappeared, and are continuing to do so…
Stormy relations with the local police force, a trashy autopsy, an unforgiving encounter with an old childhood enemy, the short-circuiting of a human trafficking arrangement, exchanges of gunfire, high-speed chases and genuine clues and false leads, all steeped in an atmosphere of misery ("since the mine closed, those who weren’t able to leave have been trying, quite simply, to survive") which drives some to cash in on their offspring and others to drift towards despair: Valan – Valley of Angels moves quickly, from one event to the next, in an atmosphere of implacable gloom.
Deftly drawing on drone shots, creating the sensation of a divine eye staring down upon a universe of infinite smallness, Béla Bagota takes advantage of the spectacular forest-clad and snow-capped mountain backdrop to deliver a film which is effective, but whose script – written by the director himself – is somewhat convenient and ultimately rather predictable. That said, Bagota’s sense of mise en scène does win out over the feeling of déjà-vu permeating the plot. And it is a plot which exposes a very real socio-economic reality (although some might find it a bit odd that a Hungarian filmmaker has chosen to charge his neighbouring country Romania with such a load, unless it’s some kind of symbolic parable). In short, whilst fans of this particular genre might find the content of the film somewhat lacking in surprises, it holds up nonetheless, and, most importantly, it reveals a talented filmmaker to the world, who’s certainly one to watch.
(Translated from French)
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