Satantango ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

You are slouching around in this decay, far away from anything that means life. Your plans come to nothing. Your dreams, still blind, are shattered. You expect some miracle which will never come.

Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó is adapted from László Krasznahorkai’s novel of the same name. It is often interpreted as a political parable, with its story of a declining farming collective inhabited by greedy, dishonest villagers serving as a microcosm for life in Communist Hungary, more specifically, during the decline of socialism in Hungary.

At the time of the film’s release, the country had only just freed itself from that epoch infamously dubbed ‘Goulash Communism’ which lasted under the rule of the Soviet-influenced Hungarian People’s Republic, a single-party government. Indeed, autonomous farming collectives were emblematic of and implemented during the Hungarian People’s Republic as a means of increasing production rates and efficiency, allowing Sátántangó to implicitly situate itself in this era of Kadarism.

The film’s plot revolves around the messianic return of a villager previously assumed dead, who proceeds to persuade his fellow villagers into abandoning the farm and forming a commune anew, after a tragedy takes place. These events appear vaguely analogous to Hungary’s gradual shift from a terroristic regime to a softer form of totalitarianism* (the aforementioned 'Kadarism') — the tragedy perhaps being the Revolution of 1956, but in the film's case, the death of young, neglected Estike. Estike symbolises the neglected, oppressed middle class during the peak of communism. She is shown as being ignored, left with no power nor faculty to dissent against her oppressive existence, and that too by her own family — her mother who forces her to stay outside her house, to which she should be entitled. Her brother, Sanyi, plants false promises of money in her head while secretly stealing from her allowance. Eventually, she takes her frustrations out on her pet cat, poisoning it, and after the realization of what she's done as well as her brother's betrayal – proceeds to poison herself.

In interviews, however, Tarr is reluctant to make any associations between Sátántangó and the political context surrounding its creation, stating, ‘Politics makes everything too simple and primitive for me,’ and maintaining that his ‘goal has always been to make timeless stuff.’ His aesthetic style is a reflection of this philosophy, characterised by the exclusive use of black-and-white, of 'eternal forms' of technology, indefinite, anonymous costumes and chronotopes that feel as endemic to the past as they do to the present, as well as a lack of information that provides political/cultural/historical context around the events transpiring in his films.

Tarr uses a distinct cinematic language that stringently emphasises spatial and temporal relationships between objects, people and environments over narrative elements, primarily through long takes. In this regard, he seems to continue a tradition of other ‘slow-cinema’ auteurs, such as his Hungarian predecessor, Miklós Jancsó. While more hesitant when citing Tarkovsky, there is nonetheless a perceptible influence of his in Tarr’s work in regards to the usage of texture, the elements and time to create a deliberately meditative, ethereal, sensory experience.

Tarr’s long takes can ultimately be distinguished from other auteurs in many ways – rather than the fluidity of an Angelopoulos film, or the elaborate staging of a Welles or Altman, Tarr seems to be more interested in the material passage of time itself, unobtrusively following characters naturally interacting in their environments, while at other times using a heightened, slow, lulling pace to meticulously study the details of a weather-beaten face with the same nonchalance as the cracked wall of a dilapidated tenement.

In ‘An Image of Recurrent Time: Notes on Cinematic Image and the Gaze in Bela Tarr’s Sátántangó’ , Jana Dudková notes, ‘Everything in Tarr’s films, including his extremely long takes … refers to the act of creating, mediating and registering the world, and thus to the omnipotence of a (film) creator.’ This consistently indifferent, and once again, nonchalant gaze is in line with Tarr’s thematic intention; as expressed in a quote from the chapter entitled ‘We Are Resurrected’: ‘…the strange, disturbing unity in which [man and animal] become inextricably intertwined.’

Tarr’s intention with Sátántangó seems to be to study this unity, from an elevated, omnipotent gaze. However, Dudková considers another point-of-view as well: ‘The sense of mediation is enhanced by many references to optical devices or partly transparent materials that allow, improve or disturb the clear view…The film’s plot is thus not narrated from the point of view of a transcendental observer.’ However, in my opinion, Tarr’s gaze seems to be a culmination of the two, as it often deviates from the perspective of present human observers in a given scene and instead navigates the world of the film fluidly, tracking across filthy, rain-soaked fields where pigs muck about, or contemplates endless, muddy roads traversed by no one. These moments are often accompanied by extra-diegetic music composed by Mihaly Vig, disembodied entirely from the image, yet full of instrumental imperfections.

The culmination of these choices allow Sátántangó to be understood as a film haunted by the absence of a God, rather than the presence of one. It is the omniscient gaze of a nonexistent creator – which harkens to Tarr’s roots in philosophy. This sense of an absence is further emphasised by Tarr’s usage of a ‘negative’ spatiotemporal field. Aside from the empty road (later to be occupied by the travelling villagers), and the cows that desert the village in the very opening shot of the film, there are subtler details in which the frame calls attention to an absence, for instance: Tarr pans away from two empty chairs in a waiting room, towards two drabber chairs in the Commander’s office, occupied by Irimiás and Petrina, who at once rise as the Commander enters, or, in a shot foregrounded by Estike staring across an empty field, lingers on it until she and her brother Sanyi are so faraway that they appear to be invisible, indistinguishable from the bleak, gray horizon. It is a gaze of disillusionment.

The ‘godlessness’ of the film’s worldview and its gaze are only punctuated by its constant evocation and subsequent demystification of what appears to be ‘transcendental’. This, paired with the constant use of repetition, book-ending and cyclicality often achieve a despondent tone of simultaneous anticipation and inevitability.

This sense of demystification often occurs in the film’s most surreal, enigmatic sequences – when Irimiás kneels before the fog where Estike may have died, only for this to be literalised by Petrina thus: ‘You’ve never seen fog before or what?’ Subsequently, the trio – Irimiás, Petrina and Sanyi – travel to a town square and stop at the sight of a flock of liberated horses running amok, only for a very rational explanation to be suggested by Sanyi: ‘The horses got away from the slaughterhouse again.’ Of course, this banal, offhand remark does indeed reveal thematic intention in regards to the plight of the villagers, much in the same way that the opening image of the herd of cows did, but upon first hearing it, deliberately nullifies the surreal ambiguity such a self-consciously overwhelming image may create.

The most prominent instance of evocation-demystification occurs over a long period of time in the film, the seeds of which are sown in the very beginning of the film. In the opening scene, we hear the gonging of church bells over the mooing of a herd of cows that are slowly making their exit from the farm (or perhaps being coerced towards a slaughterhouse). The tolling of the funereal bells is repeated when we follow Futaki in the chapter ‘News of Their Coming’, then once again in the chapter entitled ‘To Know Something,’ where we follow a character known only as the Doctor. This is very much literal, as each of these chapters essentially revolve around the same event, allowing the bell to be the common denominator. The gonging itself is coloured inexplicable by the narration at the beginning of the film – the nearest chapel to the town that could potentially be making the sound has been long-abandoned. This information allows for the scenes with these bells to assume a surreal, divine quality, heralding the 'Second Coming'-esque return of Irimiás.

At this point it's important to note that the prologue and epilogue of the film flow seamlessly into each other. The epilogue, appropriately titled ‘The Circle Closes’ repeats the sounds of the bell from the earlier chapters, except there is no literal connection now – as the previous events and the epilogue occur fairly far apart in relation to each other, only punctuating this enigmatic sense of divinity. The film then proceeds to nullify this by revealing the origin of the sound – a mad-man, banging on a rail, in the ruins of a church (presumably the chapel referred to in the narration), anachronistically yelling, ‘The Turks are coming!’ The event is no less enigmatic or disconcerting; on the contrary, it is far more upsetting due to the rather nihilistic connotation it implies. The last few minutes of the film follow the Doctor as he boards up the sole window of his cellar-like room, blocking out the light from entering his room. Once engulfed in darkness, he begins writing the narration that opens the film, allowing the film to begin and end in pitch-black.

It is interesting to note that this complete pitch blackness is the most prominent literalisation of Tarr’s recurrent usage of ‘negative space’ – a space that will give way to a rebirth of the film, as well as the cycle of waiting that follows. It is an ending laden with apocalyptic dread; despite a sense of implied self-perpetuation, the air of anticipation surrounding the film has not been dispelled, rather filled with more dread. With its final image, Sátántangó places a capstone on the metaphorical window through which so many of its characters observed the gradual, yet inevitable disintegration of their community — the fear in the doctor ultimately manifests itself in the desire to not know what may be coming anymore — as well as the window of the theater screen through which we were looking. A film so infatuated with the act of looking, with the self-reflexivity of spectators gauging their environment through frames ends with the relinquishment of its own gaze, leaving us in a void of anti-creation.

In Sátántangó, time itself is the devil. It is a film that displays ‘the perpetuity of defencelessness' to which its characters and viewers alike must surrender, as ‘twigs to rain’. The immutable, deterministic truth of time effectively expresses Tarr’s disillusionment with not only Communism, but human society and political systems as a whole, sowing the expectation of a reward within its members – a reward as fictional as the money that Estike’s money-plant may yield – and locks its denizens in the constant anticipation of a better hereafter that will never arrive, a futile, circular dance where every sign of progress is immediately negated by going a few steps backwards.

*The lack of a stable source of income for the villagers at the beginning of the story perhaps alludes to the actual fall of communism, but considering the novel's release date, I'd say the former analogy is more likely.

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