Friday, September 11, 2020

Sátántangó (1994, Béla Tarr)

Quest Status: 716 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #108

Sátántangó opens with a 10 minute tracking shot of cows aimlessly wandering across a muddy dirt courtyard. Quietly ominous synth pads are layered with tolling bells and the intermittent bleating of the cows, with no people in sight. The Steadicam tracking shot glides across the potholes and mud with unsettling grace, following the cows' movement with absolute precision. At first glace, this opening shot apparently serves only to establish a bleak mood and an equally bleak setting, a dilapidated farming commune in rural Hungary. The narrative begins with the next sequence, in which bells are heard more prominently this time, as they will be again much later in the film. On repeat viewings, the opening shot of the cows could be seen as foreshadowing for what's to come. For others, coming to the film with no prior knowledge of Béla Tarr's style, this opening shot could seem like the ultimate height of avant-garde pretension, signaling that it might not be worth sticking around for the remaining seven hours. Nevertheless, it's an ominous and surprisingly unsettling opening, the perfect overture for what's to follow.

The opening also gives the viewer a clear idea of what the film's pacing will be like over the course of its seven hour running time. It's divided into twelve distinct sections, each of which focus on a single character or group of characters. For the first four hours of the film, we see the same day unfold multiple times from multiple different perspectives. Each perspective is limited, but adds another layer to the viewer's understanding of this decaying community and the people within it. Except for a few scattered reminders of modern society, this looks a lot like life in the middle ages. There appears to be no running water and only the most basic electricity. Almost of the villagers express a desire to escape, to find some elusive dream in some far-off place. But somehow these dreams remain just out of their grasp...

At least, that's what the situation looks like when the film starts. However, throughout the film's first four hours, we repeatedly hear murmurs about Irimias and Patrina, two mysterious characters said to be on their way back to the commune, despite being assumed dead by everyone in the village. Along with the money that the villagers have made from that year's herd of cattle (revealing the significance of the cows in the opening scene), the arrival of these two men is the big news on everyone's mind on this miserable, rainy day. It's the first rain that signals the start of fall, a season of continuous rain which will cut the farmers off from the town until winter comes. The film constantly evokes a feeling of being cold and wet. We often follow the characters as they plod down muddy dirt paths and get drenched in the unending rain. It feels as if the rain will never stop, this day will go on forever, and Irimias and Patrina might never arrive...

No filmmaker has embraced the long take in his work quite as wholeheartedly as Béla Tarr, and true to form, there are reportedly only 150 shots in this entire 7 1/2 hour film. Sometimes Tarr follows his characters as he does the cows in the opening scene, sometimes he moves around them in laboriously choreographed camera movements, or sometimes he watches them walk off into the distance, lingering for minutes on end until they become black dots on the horizon. And it's not just the long takes - Tarr breaks a lot of cinematic rules in this film. The narrative focus stays constant throughout any given chapter, but the camera could move anywhere at any time. As long as the long takes are, they usually end suddenly. This creates a sense of tension, as a long take of characters in the distance might give way to an extreme close-up without notice. In the indoor scenes, the cinematographer performs unbelievable feats of fluid motion - shifting focus imperceptibly while crossing behind a character's back or deliberately zooming in on initially unnoticed objects in the frame (with a few long zoom shots that recall Michael Snow's Wavelength). While some might equate the term "long take" with the words "boring" or "motionless," Sátántangó is anything but. Its camerawork is daring, breathtaking, and wide-ranging - encouraging the viewer to focus and let their eyes wander around the frame rather than serving only to highlight the things in the frame that are important to the plot.

As for the plot, it's surprisingly threadbare given the film's gargantuan length. Two mysterious men return to the broken-down farm community at a moment of tragedy, at which point they provide a miraculous plan to get the community back on its feet again. The charismatic Irimias convinces the villagers to pick up and move from their dilapidated farm to an equally dilapidated manor nearby, where he promises that they can start a new life of prosperity and self-sufficiency. Only that the results aren't quite as miraculous as expected. Given that the film takes place during Hungary's early post-communist era, the characters' inability to provide for themselves or make a meaningful change in their lives might be seem as a bit of cynical social commentary. Even if they're not under the government's direct control and patronage, people without the capacity to act for themselves will always be controlled one way or another. Even if one political system falls and gives way to another, it still results in the same outcome in the end - the same way of life hidden under a new disguise.
And keep in mind that the plot described above takes place almost entirely in the last three hours of the film, after the second of the film's two intermissions. What comes before that is almost all description - of the setting, the characters, and the various intersecting events that will create the perfect storm for Irimias and Patrina to come in and catch the villagers off guard. An adaptation of a novel by frequent Tarr collaborator László Krasznahorkai, Sátántangó uses a narrative structure which is much more literary than cinematic. Especially during the first half of the film, I was continually reminded of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, with its extended internal monologues and a narrative that can only be comprehended gradually, due to the limited perspective and inherent flaws of each of the characters. This type of style might be acclaimed in the literary world, but when transferred to a cinematic context, it makes for a much more challenging viewing experience than what we usually expect from a film.
Nevertheless, thanks to this literary storytelling style, Sátántangó has a sense of texture and scope that most filmmakers could never hope to achieve. I also think that, despite the many commentators (including Tarr himself) who insist that Sátántangó can only be truly appreciated when watched in one uninterrupted sitting, there are many isolated sequences of visual beauty or technical prowess that could be taken out and appreciated on their own merits. There are also a handful of sequences which I might be tempted to skip on repeat viewings - primarily the infamous cat torture sequence. Apparently the cat used for this scene was Tarr's own pet cat, the child actress who acted in these scenes practiced with the cat daily as a form of play, and the cat's cries of pain were dubbed in after the fact. Still, if you're a cat lover like me, consider yourself warned: that scene is not an easy watch.

But as difficult to swallow as the cat scene is, it is consistent with Tarr's desire to show us how pivotal moments in his character's lives play out in real time. Sometimes he even stops time and creates tableaux in which his characters stand motionless in a frozen moment of time for the viewer to examine. The pain, the ugliness, the humor, the beauty, and the mystery contained within this story are all there for us to absorb in all of their multi-faceted glory. Sátántangó may not be the greatest film ever made, but it will get under your skin, mess with your head, force you to examine both the nature of time and the meaning of human existence over the course of its draining but often engrossing and fascinating seven hours.

--- 284 films remaining ---

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