Satantango ★★★★★

Ever since I have started reviewing at a more-than-amateur pace and style, I have learned not to use any form of superlatives if they are not truly needed. That being said, Sátántangó is the greatest film I have ever seen. Often hailed as Tarr’s masterwork by those who have taken the plunge into its seven-and-a-half-hour running time, it still retains a cultish status of followers (myself at the forefront) even if readily available on DVD and floating torrents. This sort of esoteric prominence amongst the critical elite is what drove me to Tarr’s films in the first place, curiosity rampant as I drove through the films he made with his auteurist tendencies set after the Krasznahorkai connection (Damnation, Werckmeister Harmonies, The Man from London, The Turin Horse). Now that I have stepped out of the proverbial Plato’s cave, I can attest to Sátántangó to be not just a film deserved of its critical following, but also the staple film in Tarr’s career, with each subsequent film being an addendum or afterthought of this haphazard, negligent universe.

The first shot, in a particular Tarr fashion, is one of the best in the film, establishing tone, setting, and an apt summary of the condition of the characters and their subsequent reactions to one another. Cows are shown plodding (and plodding and plodding) through the permanently wet mud, wind howling to accompany their journey to nowhere. The gliding camera follows their movements, although at times obfuscated by numbered buildings, presumably cramped living spaces for whoever would be forced to live in this despondent rural scenario. The bovine nature of sullen pointlessness on this vast farmstead is the sort of tango related with the film’s title and upcoming series of stepping forward and back in narrative. Dancing in place, utterly unromantic, and pacing forward into bleak landscapes are repeated throughout the film, but first established with the cows to note Tarr’s nearly cynical outlook on the lives of his characters.

Enter Irimiás, or at least his presence amongst the tight-knit farming community. He and his partner Petrina are spoken of in a foreboding tone of impending doom, not unlike the unseen figure of the Prince in Werckmeister Harmonies. He is talked of as if coming back from the dead, a sort of mood only enhanced by the tracking shot of his walking through the urban wasteland, trash flying through his feet; the wind taking aural dominance, overwhelming the viewer while this figure occupies a fragment of the screen. He commands a diner to remain at a stand-still, a shot frozen in time to commandeer the larger-than-life atmosphere about his omnipresent shadow, carrying the audience into one of Tarr’s many mystical moments. We understand that Irimiás is the demiurge of the following non-events and is stabilized as the perfect catalyst for this sardonic tale.

However, there are two characters that stand outside the events Irimiás has put into place. The doctor-as-voyeur who records the movements of the fellow villagers in an inordinate amount of personal notebooks is given significant promise in the third chapter: usually these types of characters represent the audience (or psychoanalysts would at least hope as much), but Tarr would deny anything extra-filmic going on. The famous scene of the girl being tricked by her brother into believing a “moneystalk” would grow by planting her small fortune, only to have it stolen, provides fruitful allegory to the plot later revealed by Irimiás and the collective farming troupe. Her later punishment of the only living thing she can successfully seek vengeance through, her cat, is without a doubt the most viscerally painful to watch throughout the film. It’s the sort of action the rest of the film simply implies through a sweeping atmosphere and lingering shots: loss of humanity and innocence pervert every frame, but here it is exacted in a macabre gratification. How fitting it is that we are given two perspectives of their meeting near the bar where the rest of the community engages in a ten-minute dance (tango reference, ahoy!). The first, from the doctor, being in a drunken stupor and searching for more alcohol is seen as being inconvenienced by the girl’s incessant yelling at him. From her perspective, she is asking for help, the cat having died and her planning her own suicide through poison. Cynicism instigating heartbreak even pervades those unprovoked by Irimiás.

However, even her death cannot be elevated as a tender moment or something untempered. Irimiás’s speech at her funeral is given first with her body in the foreground and her memory being of first importance, only to end with a penetrating close-up of Irimiás using her dead body as a reason for the community to fall into his scheme. Visual cues are a welcome help, but the faltering passivity on the villagers’ faces linking us back with the plodding cattle further cement Irimiás’s power and our suspicion (until now, he was presented as powerful, but not particularly evil). The long, dreadful tracking shot to the abandoned farmstead and the absence of Irimiás produce a ghastly effect amongst the collective farmhands, ridden with suspicion and doubt until he finally shows up, asserts his dominance with a speech once again, only to divide them in a final move of corrupt politicking, but brilliant personality. Tarr may deny any allegory to the state of Hungary during the time he made this film (although he could not begin in 1985 as he wanted due to censorship and political trifles), but it is certain that he does not want us to see authority too favorably: power has revealed Irimiás’s caustic intentions and has taken the existence of the farmhands from meager to agonizing. The quality of human life, as Tarr puts it, is shit.

The film ends with yet another vignette of the alcohol-fueled doctor. Any voyeuristic activity has come to a standstill as the community’s visible activities have ceased, but the notebooks continue to be filled in a sort of plodding fervor. He is startled and prompted to venture outside, presumably for the first time since running into the girl, by the sudden ringing of bells. As we expect this to be a notion of some sort of spiritual awakening of the characters, with mutterings of curiosity coming from the doctor, we are left with an anti-climax of a crazed man shouting “The Turks are coming!” from the base of the bell-tower. After seven-and-a-half hours, Tarr has left us unfulfilled; the characters have merely plodded in circles, in Satan’s tango, a Sisyphean climb, or whichever platitude one may choose. Resulting from the anti-climax is the doctor’s return to his house to board his windows. The camera stays with the doctor during his task, muttering short abject phrases as the film undergoes its analog fade-to-black.

Béla Tarr has crafted the audio/visual model of apocalyptic despondency: a theme I have loved since my initial viewing of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, only to bring in a length and level of cynicism worthy of its ambitions. Tarr will forever be the poster-child of hopelessness, a filmography of tracking shots elucidating the part of the human condition other directors only exhibit through characterized innuendo. Sátántangó has recently broken out of the cultish attraction of the Tarr-worshipping cinephiles by being included (tied at number 36) on Sight & Sound’s 2012 Greatest Movies Poll, offering newcomers their chance to undergo the attrition wrapped in this epic. It may be challenging and it may be bleak, but Sátántangó has solidified its place in cinematic history as one of the few films worthy of being called a genuine experience rather than mere artifact.

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