Satantango ★★★★★

[this is a new interview i did with Béla Tarr about the 4K restoration that's being released in honor of SATANTANGO's 25th anniversary. not a "review," but seven-hour slow cinema masterpieces about Hungarian farming collectives can use all the help they can get]

When I asked Béla Tarr if he ever suspected that his seven-hour “Sátántangó” would resonate 25 years after it first screened at the 1994 Berlinale, the semi-retired Hungarian filmmaker hunched forward in his chair and responded with the raspy, “who gives a fuck?” grumble of a barfly at last call: “I’m not prophetic,” he grinned, revealing a well-punctuated set of teeth. “I was just an ugly, poor filmmaker. I still am. I don’t have power. I don’t have anything — just a fucking camera.”

When it comes to auteurs who look as if they could be characters in their own movies, the 64-year-old Tarr has to be near the top of the list, somewhere between Wes Anderson and Clint Eastwood. I met him on a brittle February afternoon, when he sagged through the lobby doors of Berlin’s Savoy hotel in a thick winter coat and a sour cloud of cigarette smoke. The stringy gray ponytail that slipped under the back of his hat was the same color as the stubble on his chin and the light in his eyes; Tarr didn’t seem pale so much as monochrome, as if he’d traveled back to the German capital via one of the signature black-and-white tracking shots that galvanized his reputation as a slow cinema godhead.

A quarter of a century had passed since Tarr unveiled “Sátántangó,” and now he returned to the same theater to premiere Arbelos Films’ 4K restoration of a seismic masterwork that would encapsulate the auteur’s apocalyptic vision. Adapted from the László Krasznahorkai novel of the same name, and maintaining the book’s dance-inspired chronology, “Sátántangó” tells a Möbius strip-like story about the collapse of a farming collective in post-communist Hungary, news of which inspires a mystical charismatic vulture of a man named Irimiás — played by composer Mihály Vig — to “return from the dead” and prey on the desolation he finds among the desperate and easily manipulated townsfolk. Things end as they began: In darkness and ruin and the sight of cows being coerced towards their own slaughter.

Much has changed for Tarr, his people, and the world at large over the last 25 years: He quit making features after 2011’s “The Turin Horse,” Hungary joined the European Union, and the planet rushed headlong into the information age. On the other hand, to watch the pristine new print of “Sátántangó” is to recognize that much has also stayed the same or slumped backwards: Tarr is still railing against the cynicism he sees on all sides, Hungary has repeatedly embraced an authoritarian Prime Minister who the filmmaker refers to as “the shame of our country,” and even the most democratic bastions of Western civilization have been reintroduced to the pitfalls of populism. When history repeats itself, clarity can be easily mistaken for clairvoyance.

“I wasn’t trying to see the future,” Tarr said, pounding the table between every breath. “I was just watching my life and showing the world from my point of view. Of course, you can see a lot of shit permanently; you can see humiliation at all times; you can always see a bit of this destruction. All the people can be so stupid, choosing this kind of populist shit. They are destroying themselves and the world — they do not think about their grandchildren. They do not think about anything other than how they can survive this shit. And it’s very, very sad. But that sadness provokes. It pushes you to do something.”


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