Satantango

Satantango ★★★★★

97 out of 100
SATANTANGO is too dense a film for me to ever be able to not spend hours and thousands of words trying to hash though all of the elements that floor me, so like the film this will probably end up being strangly structured and messy, so bear with me.

This was my second time watching it, (and for some reason I felt the need to subject my girlfriend to it, after it floored me the first time I saw it) and the first thing that occurred to me this time was how humane it is. It has a reputation as being bleak and cynical, which isn't totally untrue but at it's heart it's a film that doesn't believe humans are dumb cows, but that they're capable of of much more. But it's also aware that the desire for freedom and the comfort of order will often balance out in favor of the easier option. It's less the miserablist fare people take it for, but it's a dark comedy that's trying to serve as a stark warning against complacency.

Part of what makes it such a staggering work, of course, is the famous structure, and it's length, both of which transform what's essentially a very straightforward story, into a work that's so complex and brimming over with symbols and portents while remaining at every moment very contemplative and still. Which results in a film that looks as stark and intimidating as Tarkovsky, filled with tons of surreal moments of opaque symbolism, moments where characters almost seem to go into a trance and then they seem to become aware that something is amiss, bells are ringing where there are no bells, there is a stench in the bar that seems to come from the earth itself, a fog at a ruin brings someone to their knees, and then the film resumes playing out these peoples lives in these huge chunks of undisturbed time, as we're both forced and invited to experience the slow realities of their lives, and frequently it's almost as if the film invites us in, not just to the film but to some strange dream space where time becomes fuzzy. Whether you watch a traumatized girl stumble through the muck for 1 minute or 5 minutes it starts to seem one and the same and your thoughts and reflections, not just on the film itself but on something like, if the dog needs to go pee, or work the next day, start to become missing pieces that the film allows you to fill in with your thoughts. In a world where films bombard you with stimulus here is one that both allows you room to have thoughts and relies on you to complete the experience. Which this film really is, not just a film that you see, but by the end of sitting for seven hours having this world near your headspace (again most films demand to ~be~ your head space, Tarr allows them to coexist), but and experience, something that's you're really been though.

Something else that strikes me this time though is how Tarr uses animal metaphors almost constantly. The cows are the most famous use, but every animal that appears carries some meaning on the story. Sometimes more than one. We see the same pig, at the same moment in different parts of the story that occur at the same time, and in each occurrence the pig means something different in relation to the characters in each story, and the label of certain characters as pigs doesn't stick for long, as their original greedy plan is quickly abandoned in a human moment that we never get to see (the plan is to steal the money being awarded to the community and split it three ways, but see not long after they abandon that plan in favor or giving the community their fair share). The rest of the film is filled with tons more, from spiders to many occurrences of flies, and some more opaque ones I'm still trying to get a handle on, like the horses, and the owl. And of course the cat.

The cat taking me to the big flaw of the film for me (I know it's a 97, which is almost perfect for me, but this is a messy strange film, and it's lack of a precise focus is a big part of the appeal). That beging, to semi quote Mike D'angelo, I thought I was seeing the greatest movie ever made, and then it had to go and have a plot. The plot (spoiler alert, unless you've ever read a sentence-long plot description of SATANTANGO is centered around a con man swindling a communal farm out of it's final payroll. It's not a center for a story, but it all happens in the final third, which is easily the least of the thirds of the film. What makes the other two thirds so great, is how they're also essentially centered around this story, but the spend most of their running time foreshadowing it, and playing out versions of it before it happens, that re-contextualize what's coming. Specifically though the two biggest chapters in the film, both feature length, and both centered around characters that never directly interact with the main thrust, the doctor that never leaves his house, only spying on people and taking notes in between shots of brandy, and a little girl that plays the trajectory of her life on a helpless cat, and discovers a way out. The premise of both chapters are inherently compelling, both for their strangeness and their reliability (children are kind of inherintly compelling, and the doctor's story with both it's rehashing of events we've seen in a new context, which in the moments is radical, and that his story is such a weird journey into the night) despite both featuring the least forward momentum and the most walking. But both are so much about what is coming, and the ways in which the story will emphasis moments a number of times, adding new meaning each time is the kind of storytelling maneuver that can only be so powerful with the weight that the running time gives to it. Because the shots are so long, and the world of the story is so alien it seems as if anything could happen next and each shot change is an event, not even mentioning how big it feels seeing the moment the doctor's and the girl's respective paths cross twice with different shots. The moments make for a thrilling experience that reward the patience, and ultimately make the early sections of the film where moments like these are the most frequent, the stronger section.

Not that it's all straightforward in the back half, many of the films funniest moments and most memorable sequences are housed there (the penultimate chapter detailing two clerks summarizing the notes of the antagonist, the musical sequence in the old mansion, and the dream sequence). And the ending where the doctor assumes everyone in town has given up, laid down and is waiting to die, pretty perfectly sends the film off in a hilariously cynical manor, while the doctor slowly eradicates all the traces of light from the screen. If we're unable to stand up and change, we might as well give up and give up all the way.

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