Satantango ★★★★★

"I shouldn't drink. When I do I keep thinking of coffins."

Eisenstein thought that the shot was the fundamental building block of cinema. Tarr would agree, though he uses them in a different manner. Whereas Sergei creates meaning via the juxtaposition of brief shots, themselves neutral in content, Bela's shots are long and self-contained. Every one of the 157 shots that compose Tarr's 450 minute magnum opus hold a complete narrative within themselves. Severed from the rest of the picture, each could constitute its own short film. Such is the care with which he constructs these pieces of art, that he places his signature on each one. At the end of each of his virtuoso shots, we see a circle - barely glimpsed - flash in the upper right corner of the screen.

The first shot of the film follows a herd of cows, as they amble about. They browse for food but find little to eat in the mud of the decrepit town. As they wander about, their travels are captured by a single godlike sideways tracking shot. An oversexed bull tries to mount a cow; it is rebuffed. Finally, they exit the frame. For the remaining seven hours, the camera will observe the actions of a different mammal, but its techniques will remain the same. The camera's eye coolly appraises its subjects, offering neither empathy nor judgment for they deserve neither.

The lives of the farmers have been wasted, working on a collective farm that is now being dismantled along with the collapse of the Communist order. And now, as a sort of severance pay, the farmers are given a lump sum they may use to start a new life. But they are crushed by the burden of freedom, and they choose to grant their money to Irimias and Petrina, a walrus-and-carpenter pair whose actions belie the true intentions behind their honeyed words. But they are willing partners in their own destruction. It is only through fear and shortsightedness that Irimias' plan can work so well. Tarr films his actors without makeup, allowing the harsh lighting and high-contrast b&w to clearly illuminate the damage that time has wrought.

Satantango takes place in a small, claustrophobic community. However, like the best works of art, it effortlessly transcends the particulars of time and place, creating something of universal import.

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