Director: Béla Tarr
Starring: Mihály Vig, Putyi Horváth, László Lugossy
Duration: 450 min.
In a small dilapidated village in 1980s Hungary, life has come to a virtual standstill. The long autumn rains have started. The villagers expect to receive a large cash payment that evening, and then plan to leave. Some want to abscond earlier with more than their fair share of the money. However tensions arise when they hear that the smooth talking Irimias, whom they thought had died, is coming back.
Satantango is Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr's 7 hour long magnum opus. It began production in 1991 shortly after the end of Soviet occupation of Hungary and was finally completed in 1994. It is based on a novel by László Krasznahorkai, the writer of Tarr's previous film Damnation and every film he's done since.
Set in a run down and mostly abandoned village in rural Hungary towards the fall of communism, the film tells the story of the remaining villagers and how they plot and scheme against one another for the money paid to the collective. Not exactly an epic storyline that requires seven hours to tell, but that is why this film is such a remarkable achievement. Tarr amazingly manages to stretch out the simple narrative without it ever becoming tedious. How he does it is by establishing the film's meditative pace right from the opening scene and then maintaining that precise rhythm throughout the remainder of the running time.
This first scene not only sets up the tone of Satantango, it also serves as a perfect audience filter. A seven-minute long wide-shot of a herd of cows milling about a muddy and squalid village square. The shot remains stationary for quite some time before eventually the cows start walking off screen and the camera tracks along with them. From this scene we learn all we need to know about this decrepit village, and it will either scare us away into watching something else or completely captivate us in anticipation for more.
Those that stick around will find a film that unfolds as an elliptical series of twelve chapters, like the titular dance's forward and backwards steps, the narrative sometimes overlaps the same ground, replaying an earlier scene from a different camera angle, and thus another character's point of view, or jumping back in time to show distinct but parallel events. This technique is normally a cheap gimmick used in a mystery or a thriller to play with the audience, but in this film there is no trickery, it works magnificently, adding greater detail and insight to the world and all its characters.
Building on his signature visual style first seen in Damnation, every shot in this film is a long one. The black and white cinematography is spellbinding, and one could write volumes about it. There are many extraordinary shots of characters just walking, often amidst a torrential downpour. Sometimes they walk away and disappear into the horizon, other times the camera steadily keeps pace, closely behind or in front of them for several minutes at a time as they travel a seemingly endless dirt road. Interestingly I noticed there is one unique scene that takes place in the woods where the camera is shaky and hand held, it's jarring because it's the only time it happens in the entire film. For a filmmaker as visually meticulous as Tarr, I wonder if there is some intentional deep meaning for it, or if the camera man was just drunk that day.
As amazing as the pictures are, the sound here is just as important as the images. There are several scenes where the camera is held stationary on a wall or a window, while the action and conversations take place off screen. Also there are scenes where, as the characters walk away into the distance the sound stays with them, bringing us along with the crunch of every muddy footstep. Another great example of sound is in a comical marathon dance sequence in the village bar, where an accordion plays the same four chords over and over in an endless tune while the villagers drunkenly dance and keep time by banging on the nearest table or counter.
How it differs from Damnation is in the overall picture, whilst that film was all about the misery and despair of one man, this one gives us an intimate closeup of the entire village. It also shows a much wider dramatic and emotional range. Like life itself, along with the melancholy and repetition, there are moments of intense suspense, profound beauty, senseless tragedy, unabashed drunken joy, unsettling violence (cat lovers beware), and even the occasional hilarious comedy.
As an artistic statement Satantango is about as ambitious as they get, and if ever the overused term masterpiece should be applied to a film this is it. No it isn't perfect, and it may not change our lives or even change how films are made. But for a film lover it provides just what we strive for, a unique cinematic experience that goes beyond what we expect and what has been done before, and that reward is well worth the time invested.
— Bonjour Tristesse