Jonathan White’s review published on Letterboxd:
It’s never a sunny day in Bella Tarr’s world.
Lise and I attempted to conquer Tarr’s seven and a half hour masterpiece of gloom in one go one cold and rainy Sunday morning years ago. It didn’t go well. There is only so much despondence, treachery, evil, and misery one can take in one sitting without seriously considering a warm bath with razor blades.
Since the film is divided into twelve acts, and from our initial go it looked like the film would be Roshomon like, retelling the same story from different perspectives, we thought it might be good viewing while eating dinner … served up in digestible chunks of despair.
After putting off this project for a few years now, and right after TIFF, when we’re supposed to be watching light, fluffy, hollywood stuff, my sweetie decides now is the time. The Artificial Eye version we have is broken down into 3 disks, and that’s how we decided to watch; three consecutive nights.
The first thing you notice about the film, and the same with the other Tarr’s we’ve seen, is that the photography is as strikingly beautiful and textured as it is grim and desolate. Every closeup of a well worn face as detailed and expressive as a Karsh portrait; every long shot as textured and lonely and majestic as an Ansel Adams landscape. You’re given ample time to appreciate them, as there only about 150 of them in four hundred and fifty minute runtime; many stretching ten minutes or more.
Dancing with the dramatic visuals, and further enhancing the doom and the dread, is a chorus of accordions moaning in sympathy. What makes this soundscape so effective is how it is there with verve one moment, and entirely absent the next, leaving only the howling of the wind as solace.
Combine the visual and aural pirouette with dialogue that is if it’s from another place, and the combined effect is somewhat like the feeling of waking from a fever dream, and trying to explain to someone what you’ve seen; you can see it clearly, yet your words come out disjointed. You become frustrated, and try harder, but the images begin to slip away. That’s the closest I can come right now to the actual ‘feeling’ of watching Satantango. You don’t understand what you’re seeing, but at the same time you just can’t look away.
To that end, trying to unravel the the themes on a first watch would be pure folly. Greed, mistrust, and deceit lie on the surface. The second act, though, brought something forward that was almost too hard to watch; how desperation in an innocent can lead to unimaginable despair, and with it, unimaginable cruelty. The third act was, to me, probably the most frightening, as it seemed to predict exactly where we are now, and it’s terrifying.
I think it’s time for me to finally venture out of the house to stock up on plum brandy, as I fear it’s going to be a long, cold, cruel, bleak, and sunless winter.