Bela Tarr’s Satantango (1994) is a seven and half hour long, glacially paced, acerbic adaptation of László Krasznahorkai’s novel. It is the second of four films in which Tarr has collaborated with Krasznahraki as writer, beginning with Damnation (1988) and most recentlyThe Turin Horse (2011).
Tarr is frequently and aptly compared to Andrei Tarkovskt. Like Tarkovsky, Tarr’s films require intelligence and patience. At this length, Tarkovsky may seem hyperkinetic, particularly to Western viewers. Yet, patience reaps a rich spiritual reward. Indeed, Tarr may be the most spiritually intuitive filmmaker since Tarkvosky, Bresson, and Dreyer.
In certain ways Satantango is comparable to composer Morton Feldman’s six-hour string quartet. Dissonance, pauses, and silence, mixed with humor and desolation cast a shimmering, hypnotic spell. The monochromatic humor of Satantango lingers on in the consciousness, demanding viewer concentration. Despite, and because of, its challenges, it is best viewed in a single setting.
The opening is akin to a prolonged overture: a ten minute, continuous tracking shot of cows wandering aimlessly through a barren village, setting the bleak, avant tone. The film is broken down into twelve episodic movements: the twelve steps of a tango. Savage canines, unrelenting rain, wretched peasants and magnetic charlatans are the town’s muddy occupants. Never has mud seemed so simultaneously visceral and ethereal. Never has a tango been presented as so relentlessly static.
In one of most unsettling moments in the entirety of cinema, a young girl (Eirka Bok) torments and poisons her cat (yes, it was staged) before she samples the poison herself. Architectural facades and soaked, dilapidated concrete slabs adorn the film like mildew from relics of Christmases past.
Much of Satantango is filmed in long, continuous takes in real-time. A five-minute tracking shot follows two characters besmirched with trash from a blowing wind. Tarr’s camera envelops seven sleeping characters while the narrator describes their dreams. The devil’s tango is “plodding, plodding, plodding” like a hysterical, whimsical apocalypse homing in on the dying breaths of Hungarian communism. Its denizens face their slide into oblivion with an inebriated stupor, moving like the overture’s lethargic herd. Tarr’s camera details “the logic of life” with gorgeous precision, memorializing the villagers’ moribund aimlessness. They will go down scheming, defiantly mocking western capitalism’s attention deficit disorder.
There is tension aplenty in the arrival of a resurrected messiah, and so the film is indeed as much about its duration as it is about narration. Thankfully, Tarr keeps his narrative structure diaphanous. Opacity would have rendered it lifeless. Everything is caught in Tarr’s courageously mundane odyssey: buzzing flies, raspy coughs, and repetitively ticking clocks are beautifully preserved in celluloid amber. The Jonah-like prophet (Mihaly Vig) proves to be as dubious a hope as the political systems Tarr so mercilessly parodies.
The final shot, of the doctor boarding up a window, methodically removing every vestige of light, is replete with multifarious meanings. Satantango has an innovative texture. It is experiential rather than narrative. It is also startlingly visionary and postmodern, reminding us that the medium of film is a relatively young one with boundless potential.