Satantango

Satantango ★★★★★

Remember the whale in Werckmeister Harmonies? Watching Sátántangó felt like being next to that whale. It's massive. During the experience, you're so close to it that it's hard to remember how immense it is. Afterwards, you can take a step back and start to realize what you just saw.

I watched this in one stretch, with breaks at the two assigned intervals. There wasn't a shot in there that felt too long. In part, that's because Tarr (and his collaborators) can film eight minutes of milling cows without it ever feeling boring. It's a beautiful movie, despite the mud and grime and decrepit houses. Each image is framed and created with precision and intent, which makes all of them worth watching. Also worth remembering: you'll think back to the cows late in the movie, when a herd of horses mill about an entirely different town square.

The long shots also provide time to understand the world. In Chapter Eight, "Perspective From The Front," there's a long shot of the villagers staring at something unseen. It works because we know these people. We've seen Mrs. Schmidt reacting to her husband; we've seen Kráner getting angry. The film as a whole takes hours establishing itself, which makes it incredibly rich. Returning to Werckmeister Harmonies for a moment: the characterization there was broader (which by no means makes it a lesser film) because, I think, Tarr didn't have enough time to make it subtle. Force equals mass times acceleration; Sátántangó spends literally hours accelerating.

That overwhelming force is in large part directed at populism and demagogues. (No wonder I loved it.) There are clear anti-Communism themes at play here, with the villagers blindly trusting in the promise of community. Irimiás, though, is the flip side of that coin: he's the slick-talking con man who burrows into the flesh of a dying state and uses its power to enhance his own.

Chapter Seven of the movie is titled "Irimiás Gives A Speech." It is three shots, all of which are given over to rhetoric and persuasion. It's one of the most effective cinematic demonstrations of the power of lies I've ever seen, up there with A Face in the Crowd.

I keep remembering how purposeful this movie is. There's a sequence earlier in "Perspective From The Front" where the villagers are laboring down an inevitably muddy road, and one of them realizes they've left someone behind. They decide it doesn't matter. While they talk -- it's one long shot, of course -- Futaki the outsider falls behind the pack. In the next shot, you can't see him at all. It's not a big moment, it just reinforces who Futaki is with a wordless comparison to another outsider, plus it tells us that the villagers haven't learned anything from recent tragedy. If you're going to use five or six minutes on a single shot, I suppose you ought to be getting as much as possible out of them.

And I could write paragraphs on each sequence. Watch for the moments in which everyone freezes, almost motionless. It only happens twice; the second time it happened I felt like Tarr was traveling back in time to infuse the first time with new significance. It's too big a movie to capture in one go.

I saw this on the Arbelos Blu-ray, which I strongly recommend for anyone who wants to give this a try. I very much hope I get to see it in a theater someday. I know I'll be watching it again in the next year or so.

"You know what, a film is just a film. What I want is for you to go to a cinema, sit in a darkness, watch it and when you leave: how are you? Are you better? Do you feel stronger? Did you get something? Or are you just the same as you were when entering the cinema? And that’s all." -- Béla Tarr

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