Friday, September 11, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Satantango (1994)

Satantango (1994) 
Directed by: Béla Tarr.
Written by: László Krasznahorkai & Béla Tarr and Mihály Vig & Péter Dobai & Barna Mihók based on by the novel by László Krasznahorkai.
Starring: Mihály Vig (Irimiás), Putyi Horváth (Petrina), László feLugossy (Schmidt), Éva Almássy Albert (Schmidtné), János Dergrazsi (Kráner), Irén Szajki (Kránerné), Alfréd Járai (Halics), Miklós Székely B. (Futaki), Erzsébet Gaál (Halicsné), György Barkó (Iskolaigazgató), Zoltán Kamondi (Kocsmáros), Barna Mihók (Kerekes), Péter Dobai (Százados), András Bodnár (Horgos Sanyi), Erika Bók (Estike), Peter Berling (Orvos), Ica Bojár (Horgosné), István Juhász (Kelemen), Mihály Ráday (Narrator - voice).

There are two types of people in the world – those who think Satantango is a masterpiece, and those who never seen it. This doesn’t mean that everyone should see Satantango because it would instantly be one of their favorite films – far from it. But I think the type of people who won’t like Satantango by the time the first shot ends, that the film isn’t for them, and turn it off. That first shot lasts ten minutes, and focuses on cows. The camera will eventually start slowly panning, following the cows, showing you the very small Hungarian village that the film will take place in, but in the end, the shot is 10 minutes of cows. If you’re bored early in this shot, you should probably just give up – and save yourself the next seven-and-a-half hours it would take to watch the rest of Satantango. Yes, the movie is about more than cows – far more in fact, but in that shot you discover the speed at which director Bela Tarr is going to go for those seven and half hours, the meticulous care he puts into every shot. It’s a film that demands your attention – and most people won’t want to give it that attention. This isn’t a value judgment on people. Most viewers have been conditioned by classic film grammar to expect certain things – and Tarr defiantly doesn’t give you that. The film is not for everyone – it’s not for most people. But if it’s for you, then it’s really for you. And it is a masterpiece.

For a long time, Satantango wasn’t available for home viewing. Tarr has said the film is designed to be seen in one sitting, no breaks, in a movie theatre – and while you can (probably accurately) accuse Tarr of being pretentious on that point, you also have to admit that he is right. This is a slowest burn of a film imaginable, and it builds and builds and builds over those seven hours. Watching it over multiple sittings wouldn’t work as well – you have to get yourself back into the headspace he gets you in with those cows all over again – and perhaps that’s impossible. It now is on DVD – and on the Criterion Channel (where I watched it). And it is glorious.

The film is about a small farming collective in Hungary, and what happens to it as it is slowly destroyed. The destruction is caused by Irmias, who was one of them, but has been presumed dead for months now. Then he and his friend saunter back in one day. The others in the commune don’t know that he has made a deal with a Police Captain from nearby to spy on the collective. He is charming, and good with words, and he will lay the foundation for the slow destruction of the collective.

That is the plot – sort of – although Tarr takes detours on his way there, sowing the seeds of discontent all over. There is a masterful, and almost unbearably painful, sequence that runs nearly an hour – as a little girl slowly tortures her cat to death in order to control something in her life, but then is so racked with guilt, that she walks all night with the dead cat in her arms, before taking her own life. Yeah, it’s that sort of film.

Yes, the film is unremittedly grim. Tarr shoots the film in wonderful, glassy black and white. His shots often last minutes on end – following people as they walk through the trash strewn streets in a windstorm for example, or watching drunken people dance for a long stretch of time. He focuses on their grizzled faces that you only get when you lived a hard life. Is the film nihilistic? Definitely.

And yet, that implies that Satantango is one grim, seven-and-a-half-hour slog that no one could possibly enjoy, doesn’t it? That perhaps the reason why everyone who has sat through Satantango calls it a masterpiece is simply because they sat through a seven-and-a-half film, and if it wasn’t great, then you just wasted all that time didn’t you? It’s true that can happen sometimes – show me a film that runs more than four hours, and I will show you quite a few critics who claim it to be a masterpiece. But while the outlook of the film is grim, and Tarr is certainly earned his place among the “slow cinema” giants for a reason, there is also so much humanity on display in the film. And moments of grim humor.

And the film is enthralling. It really does, as the cliché goes, cast a strange spell over your – enveloping you in this world. The cinematography is among the best in any movie you will ever see. It is every bit the masterpiece people who have seen it claim it to be. You already know if you’re one of those people – because you’ve probably already seen it. If you haven’t, turn it on the Criterion channel just to experience those cows. If you’re enthralled by the end of that shot, strap yourself in for another seven plus hours of it. It is worth the journey.

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