Bela Tarr: Satantango (1994) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Bela Tarr: Satantango (1994)

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Every Tuesday Andrew will be examining the work of the Hungarian director Bela Tarr.

"Regard me as a sad researcher who investigates why everything is as terrible as it is.

Andrew COMMENTARYThe last Soviet troops left Hungary in 1991.  Three years later Bela Tarr, Laszlo Krasznahorkai and their team of actors were finally able to release the work he'd dreamed of making for so long - Satantango.  During those years the promise of Capitalism came, failed, and left the people of Hungary just as broke and starving as they were during the times of Soviet rule.

It took the failings of two completely different systems of political thought for Tarr to finally make this, his first masterpiece.  Over the course of seven hours, Tarr reminds us that all that happened was the trade-in of one debilitating set of rules for another.  Those left on the outside, in the farms and factories, still had no way to enter "normal" society.

They were jolly once, and we see that in one fleeting glimpse as they dance round and round in circles.  One of the village schemers smacks his walking stick against the table as another man plays an endlessly looping tune on an accordion.  Drunk, they have convinced themselves they are happy, and don't know that the dance will end exactly as it started.  For the moment they are blissful with the money that they are getting from the government to move their lives; unaware of the false messiah returning home to steal it from them, or the little girl who needs their help and is frozen by their drunken song.  More so than in almost any other film, that little bit of plot that drives everything hardly matters.

Satantango is an achievement that may never be replicated ever again.  It's slow compositions, extensive use of sound design, and thoroughly defeated cast all combine with Tarr's unique sensibilities about the universe into a film that earns every minute of its run-time.  It demands your attention, but not by using flashing lights or traditional heroes.  It asks you to sit, hear, watch and empathize.  These are people that have as much dignity and human life as any of us.  Please just stop for a while and listen.

Not everything will be apparent the first time through any moment.

Despite it's run-time, this is an incredibly easy film to watch.  Tarr fills his screen with so many visual details and tricks of the ear that I began to wonder why I bother with most films.  He respects our intelligence enough to know what he creates will not fall flat on deaf ears or disinterested eyes.  This is not a film for the impatient.

The first scene, also one of the many brilliant moments in the film, pave the way for what is to come.  Tarr's camera sits and regards a group of cattle that have settled outside of a barn.  The cows sit, and slowly begin to move to the left.  We watch as they leave the framebl, and the camera slowly shows us the village.  It's fallen behind the times, large holes fill in what used to be walls and ceilings, the paint is falling off in thick sheets.

This is a place so decrepit that even the cows have the good sense to leave.  When they reach a small clearing, just before the exit of the village, they are joined by a group of chickens that have the same idea.  This entire sequence takes about 10 minutes, establishes everything that you need to know about the town, and does so without uttering a single word on the soundtrack.

The next moments answer a question I had watching the first.  If the cows and chickens have the sense to leave, what does it say of the people that decided to stay?  They're lonely.  So lonely that they've forgotten how to seek comfort with others, so awkward they are rejected by everyone, and relegated to the status of non-entities that forced to leave their town by the government.

The sun rises and through the window of one of the homes we see how they live.  First we get a glimpse of the table and cabinet, then the pans littering the floor to collect water, then the personal mementos gathering dust, finally the flies that are covering everything.  As the light enters, the sound of a ticking clock becomes louder.  The sound of the flies buzzing threatens to overwhelm the ticking, and the rain thuds down on everything.

The furnace has to suffice instead of human contact.

Satantango is the work of someone in masterful control over every possible facet of the screen, and is still finding ways to show how much of a lie most film making is.  One sequence details the narrow escape of an adulterer.  The camera is centered on the husband as he relieves himself in a field, slowly the camera pans and we see the adulterer hiding behind a wall just beyond the husband's sight.  A dull noise is heard in the background as he waits for the husband to back inside, and dissipates once the adulterer is in the clear.

Tarr makes the genius decision, almost two hours later, of showing the entire sequence from the point of view of the town doctor.  He sits and chronicles his thoughts and observations, notes how nervous the adulterer looks in the window (at this point unaware of what's happening).  The doctor observes him scramble away, desperate and panting, while the husband stands just a few feet away.  Tarr exposes his earlier visual and auditory trickery by replaying this moment from the doctors point of view.  What felt like an eternity to the guilty is just a fleeting moment for the uninvolved.

The structure of Satantango is much like the interplay of those two moments, a tango for forward and backward movement.  The story will seem to progress along for some time, then double back and feature the same sequences from an entirely different point of view.  A bright house looks like a blurry haven to the drunk, then a place of false security to a scared girl.  A simple request turns out to be more important than one person realizes.  On and on the dance continues, and while the story eventually goes beyond that first day in the village, it will end up like all stories do.  Back to nature, to the darkness, to the bell that rings out for no one.

Cat lovers may want to take a break for about half an hour.

Despite the long takes and constant rain and cold, Satantango is not as depressing as it's pieces sound.  The same technique that Tarr uses to empathize with their pain is also used to outline their determination.  What's important isn't  that the dance ends where they began, but that they keep the strength to try the movements one more time.  There's a certain comic absurdity to their situation, one that helps the long walks in the rain go by much easier than you might suspect.

Satantango is as rewarding an experience you are likely to have watching a movie.  It's a relic so firmly entrenched in the time it was made that it ends up speaking to all periods of transition and change.  If you don't have the time to watch it, make the time.  Don't be like the villagers, sitting and listening to the clocks push truly enriching experiences to the side.  It will reward you like few other films can.

Next week I'll be watching a film that is even better than Satantango - the transcendent Wreckmeister Harmonies.

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Satantango (1994)

Directed by Bela Tarr.
Written by Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Bela Tarr.

Tarr with text

Posted by Andrew

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