Satantango ★★★★★

"I'm sure something's going to happen today."

How does one review Sátántangó?

Carefully, methodically. Don't you dare try to watch another movie the same day. Preferably on a dreary day. By please not stealing this film; buy the new Blu-ray restoration. With a sleepy cat on your lap. (No, he didn't watch that one scene.)

Also, maybe with a stiff drink.

I haven't had a drink in nine years. Sátántangó got me to do that again. Also, the Super Bowl, but whatever. Egészségedre!

Sátántangó (literally, "Satan's Tango") is of course the mammoth and relentlessly intimidating seven-hour-plus opus of Hungarian director Béla Tarr, for years virtually unseeable due to few reliable copies accessible to cinephiles, building its reputation on word of mouth and slowly -- emphasis on that term, for sure -- growing to be one of the most acclaimed films of the last quarter of the 20th Century, if not of all time. Epic ten-minute takes including its (in)famous opening of cows walking through and out of a village, sweeping pans of the countryside, long sections of dialogue with a script much denser than others of the "slow cinema" landscape, Tarr's untouchable drama of class struggle, pessimistic philosophy, and nihilistic modernity is at once essential and an undertaking from which even the most ardent cinephiles can shy, considering its length and heady themes. And yet, it beckons me this day. Into the abyss I sojourned.

A collective farm has fallen apart in Hungary after the collapse of Communism. In a poverty-stricken mud-caked village where residents await a payment after a factory closing, Futaki (Miklós Székely B.) and Mrs. Schmidt (Éva Almássy Albert) have been having an affair with her husband often away. But when Mr. Schmidt (László Lugossy) returns, Futaki discovers that he's part of a plot to steal the townspeople's money in this new era where authority has abandoned them. He demands to be part of the scheme; meanwhile, a drunken man observing from afar known as the Doctor (Peter Berling) writes the events down in a notebook. But seemingly the scheme is terminated when a man returns, who the village presumed was dead for over a year, Irimiás (Mihály Vig). Manipulative and convincing, this former co-worker and his friend Petrina (Putyi Horváth) have another plan: to spy on the town after conspiring with a police captain of a nearby community, and lure them away to a new collective.

Other villagers seem to fall prey to wickedness and evil, either at the expense of one another or themselves. Sanyi (András Bodnár) tricks his young sister Estike (Erika Bók) to plant a "money tree." Embarrassed by falling for such a deception, she poisons her own cat to show in a perverse way that she does have control over something. Devastated immediately by this act though, she poisons herself, with the cat in her arms. Schmidt and Kráner (János Derzsi) -- the other original conspirator to steal from the village -- realize Irimiás must be confronted. Among other actions, the town seems pitted against itself. The drunken Doctor observes, obese and sickly, this dance of people away from and towards hell. Now, they must decide if they will leave it all behind.

Tony calls it an "ugly, pessimistic behemoth." Cormac says it's "masterpiece of historical significance." Michael claims that watching it is a "pilgrimage one must embark upon to achieve true enlightenment." Mike simply writes that it's "one of the all time greats." David makes a brilliant comparison to (of all things) Office Space.

On top of the punishing length, Tarr challenges you in this adaptation of László Krasznahorkai's 1985 novel by presenting it just as the book does: in the rhythm of "Satan's Tango," and in a nonlinear story: twelve chapters, six steps forward, six backward. A meticulous representation of the work -- Darren argues that is "among the most faithful film adaptations ever made" -- like when From a Second Story Window re-recorded their debut album and titled this influential release Not One Word Has Been Omitted... not one word has been omitted. And that means, yeah of course it's "slow," as no narrative film could probably be made over seven hours that doesn't feel like its pace is grueling. But it's not "slow" like in the way you might be assuming. I especially love how Tarr, editor and wife Ágnes Hranitzky, and cinematographer Gábor Medvigy use establishing shots to conjure a scene, and linger long after a character has walked on. It gets you to watch every corner of the screen and take in every element in full. (I feel the same way when I watch Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman.) It is never for a second boring, or redundant, or composed of moments or scenes that I'd rather see cut. Not one.

Okay, the cat. 😿 Look, you knew I had to write about it. That was pretty bad. Tarr has insisted for years that the cat was not truly harmed, that it was all simulated, and that a vet was even at the ready during the mimicked torture and poisoning. (The director even adopted the cat, afterwards.) But in the totality of the film, it's essential, a manifestation of the cruelty, indifference, and sociopathy of the downtrodden in this surrealist nightmare.

Though there are no true moments of blood and guts, this is psychologically just as violent as any epic war film, with respect to the human soul -- metaphorical as it is, as we do not have souls but consciences for sure -- and the dismal prospects of hope in times of loss and disillusionment. Bleak, unrelenting, and devastating. And yet! Sneaky instances of black comedy, pointed political satire, and brutal sarcasm. And an epic unbroken take of dance wherein a guy walks around with a piece of phallic-shaped bread stuck to his forehead. He steals the scene like that robot-dancing guy did in several Chappelle's Show episodes from twenty years ago. I like my existential Hungarian masterpieces with a dash of absurdist humour, thank you very much.

I did take breaks during Sátántangó, but only using the mandatory intermissions on the discs to my advantage: after two hours (and the end of "Part One") I ate lunch, after another two hours (and the end of "Part Two," necessitating a disc change) I shoveled snow, and the last three hours took me to early this evening.

There are so many indelible images from this masterwork, but one will particularly transfixing: the slow close-up zoom onto the owl. Amazing and unforgettable. Kind of like when I watched the epic nine-hour-plus documentary masterpieces Shoah and Tie Xi Qu, I'm not sure how long it'll be before I feel the need to revisit such an exhausting and unshakable piece of art. But one day I will.

When the cows come home.

Friend who wrote a better review than me: Graham Bertoni.

Added to My Subjective List of the Best Narrative Films.
Added to Béla Tarr ranked.

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