Kinotherapy’s review published on Letterboxd:
I have sort of a weird relationship with Bela Tarr. I like Bela Tarr, I think he's very good, but I don't love him. That may sound surprising since I've been known to practically throw myself onto any film with long takes or tracking shots, and while Tarr is undeniably a master at this feat, I've never been emotionally floored by one of his films. Now I haven't seen everything from him, and don't get me wrong, I have yet to see a bad film from him, Tarr just doesn't connect with me on more than a technical level. I don't really even have a major issue with his films it's just a personal thing I guess.
If I had to pinpoint down into one flaw however, it would be that Tarr's films seem to me to be "basic art-house" Here's what I mean by that. You know when people make fun of us for liking 'slow' and 'boring' art-house films and they generalize "a 7 hour long movie with only 150 takes about the meaninglessness of life, from some foreign country no one ever vistits" (which is literally what Satantango is but I'll get to my thoughts soon) To me Tarr's films don't reach out or have much to say even on a thematically philosophical level. They're usually just kind of "Le Nihilism, le exista`nce is pain bleh!" Sure I like heart-draining, depressing stuff, but Tarr's films usually do have much more to say about the subject or on his interpretation of it. I'm not saying his films don't have depth, it's just to me they're not that deep. With a Tarkovsky film I can think about what I saw, what the characters went through, how they experienced it, what I experienced. I can't say I've ever had a lot to think about after watching a Tarr film.
But let me defend myself and say that I do still like Tarr and his films still give me an experience. I really enjoy one of his early films "Almanac of Fall" which even many Tarr fans haven't seen. "The Man from London" is okay. It needed more Tilda Swinton, and less lip-syncing problems. My favorite so far just might be "Werckmeister Harmonies" I didn't care for it so much when I first watched it, but I've warmed up to it and now I appreciate it more. It has some seemingly pointless scenes like following random characters, or do we really need to see people walking for five minutes? But this film is the one that had a bit more than Tarr usually offers for me. It's more about the impending doom and collective fear and I found it very engrossing. "The Turin Horse" is honestly nothing original. Like I mentioned above it's been done in so many other art-house films and doesn't add much else to say about Nihilism or Nietzsche. However, the film, like Tarr's other works, I still greatly enjoyed thanks to the cinematography and the bleak atmosphere. Tarr is a master of long takes and setting up depressing moods, he just hasn't moved too far beyond that in my opinion. I like Tarr, he just doesn't connect with me on that level.
So anyway, hearing about his grand masterpiece "Satantango" did make me eager to watch it, but sadly not that easy to just view it given the run-time. But this week I finally watched it all and...
Yeah it was really good! "Satantango" is a super engaging film. You'd think the 7 hour span would make you easily bored, but I found it paradoxically the opposite. The film is so long that it takes so much just setting up the village and the people that inhabit it before anything even happens. Another slightly more cynical way to look at it, is you kind of just accept everything because of how long the film is. While you can complain and just wait two hours, this film is going to be a lot longer! As if saying 'hey you're going to be here a while. Might as well enjoy it!' And the subject matter is so un-enjoyable, yet the film manages to wrap you up in it's environment, and even feel for our cast as they linger on in despair. The main plot doesn't really come into swing until about the 4 hour mark and the plot itself isn't the thick of the film. Strangely enough for being 7 hours, you'd expect it to be some kind of epic like "Lawrence of Arabia" but honestly not much happens on the surface. The camera just takes so long to watch and absorb everything and that's truly why the film is so long, but to be quite honest, it's worth it. It's some of the best world-building I've ever seen in a film, and it wouldn't have been accomplished so well if we weren't constantly attached to everyone and everything in slow yet alluring shots. Bela Tarr is one of the greatest directors at long takes and shots, maybe the best at it who's still living today, and every scene in this film proves it!
Something that really surprised me was how well the story was written! (something Tarr's films have lacked in my opinion) I know I said not much happens plot-wise, or moves quickly, but that doesn't mean the story isn't written well. There's tons of characters inhabiting this village, and it even subverts your expectations with some twists and turns. I genuinely had no idea where the plot was going to go or what was going to happen! The first few hours of the film consist of showing the same day, from different characters perspectives. I almost thought that’s what the whole film was going to be, but there was some subtle tension being built up which finally starts to coast midway.
After pondering the film some more I realized just how much I love these characters and what they represent. First there’s the little girl Estike. Her scene is one of the best of the film. It shows us just how degraded this town is as even the children are desperate for some kind of salvation. Yet at the same time it’s a tragic, and heartbreaking segment, but what I took note of was how the characters relate to nihilism and how each one represents their own form of the idea. There’s of course the devilish and deceitful Irimias (played by the film’s composer). A feared man by the villagers yet someone who they all trust. Irimias shows no remorse in manipulating the villagers or tricking them all into being a part of his devious plan that could get them in even bigger trouble. He has a strange prophetic, God-like presence to him almost. The villagers thought he was dead and now he seems to have risen again. They fear him yet he is their only hope therefore they must tango with the devil. Irimias has risen to this status himself, by living for himself and living truly as himself without any regrets. He would make Nietzsche proud by following his own path and becoming somewhat of an ubermancsh. The Doctor (played by German actor Peter Berling) chooses to be much more withdrawn. He wants nothing to do with the sleazy town he lives in and simply hides in his house, getting drunk, and ordering his maid around. He takes notes on what goes on, yet he’s almost angrily indifferent. He despises the world around him and therefore refuses to fall in with his society, therefore choosing his path, or being a shut-in which only seems to get worse by the end. And there’s one more character who shows signs of being true to Nietzsche, Sarte, or nihilism, and that’s Futaki. Futaki is perhaps the smartest, or even the most amoral of the village, albeit not by much. He fears Irimias the most yet is the first one to demand his money back. Strange enough, Irimias actually fears Futaki because of how much more self-serving and smarter he seems to be in that he might catch on to his plan. In the end Futaki leaves to find a job on his own. Irimias curses Futaki and says that a man like him can only bring destruction upon himself, but I feel like he said this out of spite, or to further manipulate the villagers to keep them from following him. Perhaps Futaki chose to stop following a deceiver and live his own life. While the rest of the villagers continue to be dimwitted, lost, and follow liars like Irimias, maybe Futaki right then and there decided the Nietzschean way was best for him and he’s on his own path of enlightenment. This is probably the only white glimmer of hope in this grey and bleak vessel.
This is just what I gathered from a first watch, for honestly I feel like there’s more to talk about here with all the different characters, philosophies and its mysterious omnipresence. That’s one more thing I’ll mention is despite being a gritty, realistic drama, there seemed to be a strange presence like something more was watching. A God-like presence and the absence of it, if that makes sense. There are hints at a more spiritual side hiding from this sin-ridden wasteland. Small hints such as the fog around Estike’s death place, or the deranged monk ringing the bell. More surreal and fantastical things lie out there, almost as if saying ‘there is a God, but he’s not here. Not where we need him to be’. This creates a starkly indifferent tone to the universe and just makes the villagers existence even more depressing.
Bela Tarr finally succeeded my expectations… by a little. It’s still very “Tarr-y” with being about nihilism and all, but he still managed to give me more to chew on then he has before. This is Bela Tarr at his best, truly his best film! “Satantango” is an astonishing film! Complex story, lots of characters, A-grade cinematography, bleak philosophy and superior world-building all reciprocated by an atmosphere made incredibly engaging like no other film can be engaging. This could easily be a five from me and perhaps it should be, but for now…