Satantango ★★★★★

Watched on the 12th hour of the 12th day of the 12th month with my boy kirky. Why? It felt right!

Bela Tarr has been one of my favourite filmmakers for a while now, and getting around to watching this monolithic epic has been a daunting yet alluring task for quite some time.

Not sure how to talk about it without regurgitating past phrases and adjectives of my previous Tarr reviews. With Tarr, for me, its all about the world and the atmosphere, which is incredibly consistent through all his best works, with this being no exception. The difference here is the monstrously grand stage that he thrusts his bleak and unforgiving world onto. At 7 and a half hours, Satantango is no doubt Tarr’s most thick and challenging beast, and while enjoyment can vary from moment to moment, I wouldn’t have the runtime any other way.

Satantango, like Tarr’s other films, is a world persistently tortured by the earth’s elements; violent winds seem to maliciously tail our characters as they are battered with an all encompassing rainfall. Fallen leaves and abandoned papers seem to mockingly dance around our equally worn and forsaken characters. Solitary weak dogs skitter through the muddy towns desolate and broken landscape, helplessly looking for scraps. It’s a world where all living things are equally entombed and implicated in their stark and fruitless world, struggling for survival and ultimately alone in their necessary greed. It is all captured with the most poetic eye in all of cinema, with hauntingly patient movements and absolutely, indescribably stunning, painterly compositions. Tarr’s cinematography is seriously unparalleled and probably my favourite of all time.

The opening shot is perhaps my favourite of any film I’ve seen. The sheer poetry of these helpless and naive cattle and their inexplicable and languid exodus, dissolving into the ghostly mist that surrounds the town hypnotically foreshadows the fates of our characters. It’s such a simple yet evocative opening, and it really possesses you right away. The eerie and faint ringing sounds immediately establish a cold and surreal atmosphere that pollutes the already Godless world with an otherworldly tremor foretelling ill-fate of a biblical nature. These sounds recur throughout the film; persistent church bells in the distance that seem to echo in an alien sort of way. It’s an incredibly rich and effective sound; a sort of subtle holy torment that is so joyfully unsettling to immerse yourself in.

My favourite thing about Tarr is his confidence in allowing scenes to drag on for ungodly periods of time. The third chapter is almost entirely a doctor walking - very slowly, looking for alcohol. There is a visceral poetry here, of the town’s symbol of health being an overweight drunk stumbling endlessly for alcohol that Tarr really lets you sit with and marinate in, with each pathetically laborious step and beastly grunt, and it’s as beautiful as it is devastatingly bleak. The film’s titular tango lasts an unruly 10 mins, in a mostly static shot, and only Tarr could make it one of the most uncannily disturbing things I’ve ever seen. There is something about the upbeat accordion tune, that repeats endlessly, that starts to truly sound evil after a while, and the townsfolk’s restless dancing appears almost ritualistic, tirelessly swaying and swaying trying to summon some existential levity that just ceases to arrive.

Then comes Irimias, who was casted and designed perfectly; something about him that looks devilish. He speaks as if everything he is saying is profound, yet he is always calm and assured. Irimias’ arrival, and supposed rise from the dead, brings ambivalent feelings to the town that are complex and hard to fully rationalize. Fatuki is initially excited about the news, praising Irimias for his wizard-like ability to create opportunity from the worst of situations. Much of the people wait for Irimias in an undefined yet palpable fear. Yet when he arrives, he wins their trust, and complete submission with a short speech. Irimias and his false promises of wealth, restored community, and purpose have a sort of magnetism that seems to supernaturally pull the townsfolk towards him, in a way that’s effortless due to their cloud of nihilism and despair from the moral and material decay of their collective farm. I strongly suspect this aspect of the story is reflecting a sociopolitical circumstance in Hungary’s history. I am unsure of the specific history, but Irimias and his actions in the final third of the film are no less quietly horrifying to watch. The ending of the film brings it all together in a circular sort of way, and I can’t fully rationalize all of the happenings, but they nonetheless are some of the films most striking moments and left my spirit feeling cold.

Satantango is chalk-full of Tarr’s regular shtick. Desperate characters, social ruin, the peculiar arrival of false prophets, inexplicable cruelty from us and our world. As always, he captures these things in a way that while cold and omniscient, also beautifully extends empathy to it’s weak characters, holding painfully onto their weathered faces, and allowing us to be present with them in chunks of full, unadulterated time. It’s challenging, but beautiful, and deeply effecting. I wasn’t as consistently compelled or found myself thinking as much as I was with some of the director’s shorter efforts, but I found myself enjoying this more than I thought I would, being ‘entertained’ for -nearly- every moment - pleased to be watching every 5th minute of every landscape shot, tracking shot of someone walking, etc - and ascending for quite a few. When you know what you’re in for, length-wise and director-wise, it’s surprisingly easy to just sink into this beautifully bleak world for all it’s 7 singularly desolate hours. But yeah, this is a masterpiece, and I very much look forward to watching it again sometime in the future.

Tarr is one of the GOATS but if he ever does that shit to a cat again, I'LL KILL HIM!

Where do I pick up my trophy for watching this?


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