Directed by Bela Tarr. 1994.

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At the end of an article for Talking Pictures headed The Bleak World of Bela Tarr, I expressed the hope of one day managing to see the final third of the Hungarian director’s 435-minute magnum opus Satantango (1994), based on a novel whose author co-scripted the film. The opportunity has finally arrived, with the 3-disk DVD release of this film, courtesy of the admirable distributor Artificial Eye. The film is regarded by critics I admire, like Jonathan Rosenbaum and the late Susan Sontag, as one of the greatest of the modern era.

I am quite out of sympathy with Tarr’s deeply pessimistic and anarchic view of the world, specifically of post-Communist Hungary (which admittedly I do not know). But I can forgive him all that, because of the mesmerisingly stunning black-and-white compositions, ultra-slow zooms and pans, eerily ominous music, and starkly beautiful lighting effects which he achieves in his extraordinar(il)y long takes.

You will either love or hate Tarr’s films. Just watch the first few minutes (invariably a single take) of any of them and you will know which camp you are in. Of the two others available on DVD in the UK, Werckmeister Harmonies begins with a group of drunken people in a bar acting out the sun, moon, and Earth in their revolutions and orbits; Damnation with huge coal-buckets clanking along high wires like cable-cars. The opening shot of Satantango stretches patience to the limit; in an 8-minute prelude we watch a herd of cows slowly amble their way out of a shed and across muddy ground, behind some shabby buildings, and into a field. Each film is imbued with a sense of menace and foreboding, of some undefined apocalyptic threat.

The situation of Satantango is as follows. Two members of a farm collective are planning to run off with the money. Meanwhile rumours abound that two men who had been thought dead, Irimias and Petrina, are returning. Irimias (which means Jeremiah) is a kind of evil genius, or false prophet, who is out to swindle the entire collective out of their money. Over two late autumn days, while the rain falls incessantly (Tarr’s rain makes that of Kurosawa or Tarkovsky look like a passing light shower), the drama is played out, as this pathetic group of losers is unflinchingly analysed for our scrutiny. There are 3 married couples, the Schmidts, the Halicses, and the Kraners. There is the lame Futaki, having secret assignations with the buxom and flirtatious Mrs. Schmidt. There is the schoolmaster, a geeky wordless character who wears glasses and a beret. There is a teenage boy who attaches himself to Irimias, and a young girl. And there is the old doctor, who spends his time in an alcoholic haze, awaiting his shopping from Mrs. Kraner, observing his neighbours from his window and writing down their movements in exercise books. At the end of the film, when everyone else has been lured away from the collective, he boards up his windows; there is nothing more to see.

The “Satan” of the title presumably refers to Irimias, while the “tango” (six steps forward, six steps back) seems to refer to the film’s 12 named sections (each ending with words from an unseen narrator), to the overlapping time structure (at least two scenes are repeated, from a different character’s perspective), and to the zooms in and out. One of the repeated scenes seems unending; several drunken characters dance in a decrepit bar to an accordianist playing a repetitive Hungarian folk tune which is irritating yet strangely addictive.

If you like Tarr’s style of film-making, then Satantango will certainly meet your requirements. The DVD has no extras worth speaking of, but on the Werckmeister Harmonies DVD there is an extended interview with him.  Just one warning: if you are a cat-lover, you may wish to skip the section starting some 20 minutes into disk 2. It’s all part of the hell-on-earth that is Tarr’s cinematic universe.

Alan Pavelin
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