Satantango

Satantango ★★★★★

I confess to having an attraction and an aversion to contemplative cinema. I love to be slowed down by the stark simplicity of a contemplative film. I find my heart opening up to feel and my senses to absorb more than when I am overstimulated by standard top box office Hollywood fare.

But in the case of the most "severe' examples of contemplative cinema (read Bela Tarr), it is not unusual to notice my inner restlessness and resistance to being slowed down this much. This particular Tarr film might be considered the ultimate test for any aspiring contemplative cinephile at a running time of 459 minutes. I decided it might be best to extend my viewing over 2 days.

My contemplative acumen was tested in the early moments of this film. I had some trouble sitting still and settling in to watching cows meandering slowly through the barnyard mud for a solid 8 minutes. But as the film progressed, I noticed a slow calm begin to settle in along with an enhanced alertness. No surprise. This is not an unfamiliar pattern for me.

The characteristic long camera takes of contemplative cinema opens our senses to be captivated by imagery. Never before on the screen have I been so engulfed by rain or experienced so agonizingly the suffering of a cat. Extended close-ups of faces offer a glimpse into their soul. I was transfixed by the unwavering image of the face of a girl as she trudged with stolid determination to meet her demise. These are images that endure long after the screen goes blank. Images that transform us. We are not the same person we were before.

The unique gift of contemplative cinema is enhanced perspective. Just when I think I have absorbed all that is available, a new camera angle opens up yet another perspective. Seeing reality through the eyes of one character seems to offer everything I need. Then we are returned in a subsequent chapter to view the same event, this time seen through the eyes of another character.

A perfect example. The doctor stumbles up to the bar to fill his brandy jug, abruptly pushing aside a girl who seems eager for his attention. We think little of it . . . until a subsequent chapter is devoted to giving us a prolonged and agonizing view of the world through the eyes of this same girl. Only then do we truly see for the first time the significance of this same event through the lens of her experience.

Similarly, we have no option but to endure an extended drunken party [aptly named The Devil’s Tit, Satan’s Tango] that seems to go on and on and on. This was probably the most tedious segment of this film for me. And yet . . . one could argue that the repetitive monotony of this event was a necessary experience for the viewer to more fully appreciate the slow and steady accumulation of despair among this collective.

Tarr makes explicit his intention in offering perspective when he entities his 8th chapter The Perspective From the Front and his 10th chapter The Perspective From the Rear. 

The one great gift of contemplative cinema for me is expanded awareness and heightened attention. It is this same mindful attentiveness I long to bring to my whole life, not just to my film viewing. Films like this are a training arena for my ongoing personal development in living an attentive life.

The brilliant Jewish philosopher Simone Weil believed that: Attention taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.

A few memorable quotes from this film:

You do not respect work, or those who work hard. 

In the same way the beggar trudges up the back steps of a church, the sun rises to give life to the shadows, and to separate earth and sky, man and animal, from the disturbing strange unity in which they had become inextricably intertwined.

. . . It had started to rain. It won’t stop until spring.

It seems I got pretty drunk.

Today I ran out . . . of the last drop . . . of palinka.
It looks like I need . . . to leave . . . the house.

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