Feb 27, 2011



Begin for a moment, will you, to idealize the enormous growth of joy subsiding in my heart after finishing the morally exhausting Sátántangó in two sittings. This Hungarian arthouse epic is directed by Béla Tarr, a man of immense critical acclaim known for (or not) his surreptitious black and white portraits of lower to middle class life; Sátántangó falling into the former. The disconnected narrative of Sátántangó involves a central character whispered among cattle farmers. The return of he, Irimiás, shocks all of the surrounding farmers as he and his cohort, Petrina, were rumored to have died some time ago. Add in a pinch of scheming swindlers to this messianic tale and you got only the shell of what is known as, arguably, Béla Tarr's pièce de résistance. Opening with a scene of a pasture, Sátántangó makes no attempt to hide its creeping composition. Béla Tarr estimated that there are in fact only about 160 separate scenes in the film. Uniting this with the prior knowledge of Sátántangó's exhausting run time (7 and a half hours) and you got the smug gesture of your choice. You never really grasp the situation at hand until the final scene, which lends to the ambiguity of the grand picture. Of course you'll have your theories and your alliances but in the end Sátántangó is just as likely to surprise you as it will leave you in awe. Concerning itself with several layers of manipulation is what drives the progression through the torrential waves of tragedy and copious amounts of boozing. But hey, that's the Communist era for you.

Allow me to switch relevance to Béla Tarr's utterly unique and intimate sense of directing. As highlighted in the opening scene, Béla Tarr leaves his film victim to circumstance. Shot over 4 long years, Sátántangó features many scenes of coincidental, yet genius touches. Simple facets of coexistence lead to scenes of such grave realism that the camera could have been in no way manipulated to capture these naturally occurring instances. For example, flies buzzing about the grimy peasants or newspapers in the wind defying the presence of Irimiás and his almost-prophetic resurrection. These simple touches speak volumes for what you're about to experience. Béla Tarr utilizes a sneaking zoom for focusing on a single subject then slowly retracting the perspective to initiate long-winded segments of lower class turmoil. Tarr's camera movements, rare as they are, act as soft strokes whether balancing bovine or tracing the fields surrounding them. If I were to choose a favorite condition of weather, it would, without a doubt, be rain. For this reason, Sátántangó is now an obvious and ideal escape from the warm heat of a summer afternoon. Every single scene lingers and loiters about and this isn't even grazing the self-appointed art form Tarr has created out of his sinematography.

The correlation between the desolate community (if you can call it that) and the impoverished dwellers is touched upon with our first contact of human life. The events of Sátántangó literally begin to unfold with a scene of a larger woman squatting over a water pan and cleansing her dry cunt with a wet rag. This introduction sets the standard of development as Tarr makes no excuses in showing a human life during the most tender and obscene of moments. Soon after it is revealed that this woman, Mrs. Schmidt, was having an affair with a man known as Futaki, a terrible plan of thievery sets in place. What next occurs is the primary phase of Sátántangó and that is the large sum of money rewarded to those all for a hard years work. Deceit is amidst the tightly woven collective of people incapable of independent thought. The only person exempt from this category is Futaki, slyly spoken of in the final report of Irimiás. Not only are his people left disenfranchised and caught in a never-ending cycle of "government allocation" but his role as savior is both challenged and enforced; a game of gray-scale tug of war. Since Sátántangó is told from many perspectives it does indeed become a chore up until the second hour mark. The trials of the Doctor and his quest for fruit brandy evolve into a meandering scene of walking & coughing; only to take a break with the local whores. Disapprove of Béla Tarr's slinking sinematography if you must but his unwavering commitment to unearthing a shining point in each and every degenerate is something I could never reciprocate appreciation to in words, without bathing in pretension, of course.

Your persistence will be paid off most handsomely, I can promise. The several scenes in which something of a thrilling nature is divulged marks a sobering change of pace. Going from a lonely child, skulking in an abandoned attic, admiring the rain and holding in contempt the mother who favors male company more, Béla Tarr switches sights on the possibility of a mental illness being born under the same conditions most serial killers are victim to. This little girl soon takes a stray feline nearby and submits it to a power-play in which she grasps its forelegs and rolls around with it, slamming it into the floorboards. This punishment is necessary to her as the poor cat "crapped". Soon after rat poison is brought into the mix, quite literally. Lacing a dish of milk with the poison, she forces the cats face into the bowl who has no choice but to ingest the sweet milk. Following this aggressive and harrowing scene, the girl backs off slowly. This allows the cat some peace of mind before it lowers its head into the dish and perishes. This scene admits the films second half of notoriety, the first belonging to the daunting runtime. Don't worry though; the cat's ability to act was likely the fault of a sedative and Tarr admits to adopting the beast after the film was shot. Another critical aspect of Béla Tarr's filmmaking is how in tune with rhythm he is, judging by his musical performances and technical achievements within. The quick-drip percussion is caught with applying wandering drops of rainwater to tin. Did I mention the fact that Sátántangó is one of the more soothing, therapeutic pieces of cinema? I shouldn't have to; watch any random clip on YouTube for proof of that.

A lonely light on the horizon whispers to the little girl, named Estike, but she knows better. What awaits her isn't a worried mother or a call for supper but an oppressive, drunken wench. Estika's path will soon mesh with the Doctor's, and his with Irimiás's. This slug-like progression of a simple story does Tarr's film wonders. Often throughout Sátántangó I had hoped for a minds eye peek into the thought processes of these pained creatures, wagers of sin. When not practicing avid voyeurism, Béla Tarr makes plenty time to drag surrealism out of the most bare and stricken scenes of bland activities. All of this retrospect upon my viewing of Sátántangó must spark fear in the eyes of preordained cinematic disciples, for it is quintessential viewing but selective towards attention spans. To ease the promise of an enthralling experience, I'd like to promise that once the film hits the second hour mark Sátántangó softens to the senses and becomes pliable to many calibers of cinephile. A curious thought hit once I began observing the transfer, apparently supervised by Tarr himself. Sátántangó was filmed in 35mm and me being a film projectionist, am blessed with knowledge of the format. Now if 35mm runs at approximately 24 frames per second, equating to 1,440 frames a minute, that means that the 450 minute long Sátántangó is around 648,000 frames. A Christie platter system couldn't even fit half of the films runtime. The changeover method would be the only possible way to screen Sátántangó and we're looking at about 26 reels worth (if the reels are evenly split).

If Sátántangó succeeded at anything besides raw beauty it would be encouraging me to seek the shelter of the bottle. An escape that will surely devour the lot of them, myself included. Do not be fooled by the small offering of scene transitions. Tarr commits to making each more engaging than the last. A scene to discuss would be the Headmaster's dance with the husky Mrs. Schmidt. He tangos with the goblin, offering in a hushed tone a comfortable life in return of courting her. The Headmaster then praises her tenderness; The joke being that this aspect of her doesn't exist. Mrs. Schmidt is, after all, the village whore. You might have found this review chock full of examples following the uniform, "Béla Tarr [is]...." The reason being that he does so much for us within this indelible 7 hour epic and what did we ask of him? Nothing. At the very least, we requested a competent cult classic but to call Sátántangó a cult film would be to shepherd the film into a class unworthy of its presence. And on another note, please, that damn doctor will outlive them all. Sátántangó is a film to be stared at in awe for Tarr's (ash)thetic is enough to fuel any feasible genre this film can be sorted in. I greatly look forward to Béla Tarr's swan song, The Turin Horse, due out this year. I can say without a doubt in my mind that Sátántangó is one of the most rewarding cinematic excursions that I have partaken in.


1 comment:

jervaise brooke hamster said...

I just watched some of the clips on YouTube and they reminded me of Theodoros Angelopoulos's 1975 film "The Travelling Players".