Satantango

Satantango ★★★½

In the words of Jesus Christ: "It is finished."

Or if you prefer LOTR: "Yes, Mr. Frodo. It's over now."

Anyone who's conquered the Mount Everest of modern cinema —alternatively known as SÁTÁNTANGÓ —will fully resonate with these expressions of achievement. And it's funny, BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (1980) is twice as long as this monster (clocking in at 15 1/2 hours) but I'd argue SÁTÁNTANGÓ is even longer at 7 1/2, particularly because of how sagging, unsparing, inflated, and phlegmatic the viewing experience is. In a phrase, it's like watching paint dry. It thrives on severity and inactivity. It drains and frustrates intentionally. It crawls at the pace of lava.

Tarr brings new meaning to the word "patience," as he teaches you how to experientially sink deep into the desperation his sunken characters are feeling. Anyone who survives this glacially-vague experiment is automatically endowed with X-men level ability to bear all things, both in heaven and on earth. And, happily, there are only two prerequisites to watching: complete the entire filmographies of Andrei Tarkovsky and Lav Diaz. Your cinematic muscles are then pumped to endure this grueling disintegration of backwater communism. 

SÁTÁNTANGÓ works as an academic thesis, as well as a cinematic leviathan. Tarr wants to avoid story and all explanation, but he also wants his images to speak truth to devastation, truth to oppression. His images invite you into an alien world intended to wear you down to the bone. The longer you look at them, the more you feel a part of them, as if there, trudging through his ominous wasteland step by arduous step, consuming his plague-ridden environment by the handfuls. What is this world like? Muddy landscapes and crumbling buildings litter the screen. Inclimate weather, tattered livestock, and visible poverty are markers of entropy, reminding us that the best days of this small farming community are firmly behind it. We now live in apocalyptic ruin, a vast agricultural collective infested by spiders and drenched in rain, where each raindrop is "a sure messenger of doom." We don't know exactly what this band of indigent farmers have gone through, but we clearly see the aftermath and tokens of decay in their tired faces, faded eyes, and ragged hair. Social unrest is written ferociously on the wall. Signs of death and ruin are rendered with such tactile, haunting beauty, leaving a paper trail of what Hungary looked like after post-communistic rule. 

Everything I've just written is much more fascinating to talk about than actually watch. It's academic in that way. That's not to say there aren't completely stunning cinematic moments (such as watching two men brave their way through a trash storm, or observing piss-drunk barflies dance their way into repetitive limbo, or wincing through that utterly appalling cat torture scene). These moments are direct and trance-like, but they're also sandwiched between loooong stretches of loafing. The film's meandering is not a sin. All of Tarr's films meander and gaze, creep and crawl like slugs in the rain. The bigger culprit is the unconnectedness of the screenplay. Almost every chapter feels unrelated or disconnected with what came before or after, with too few overlapping sequences that harness the story's best multivariate perspectives. The symbolic lightening of WERKMEISTER HARMONIES felt missing. The visceral vitality of DAMNATION felt distant. The storytelling is profoundly uneven, though it's most likely meant to mirror the unevenness these characters experience while waiting for deliverance. It never comes for them, and thus never comes for us. We're all pawns in Tarr's utterly bleak and nihilistic world, peasants forced to wait for Godot. It's a tantalizing thesis and frustrating experience all rolled into one. 

Let me sit on this one for awhile.


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