Review: Sátántangó (1994): A Rare Experience
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
A muddy field. Slowly, some cattle arrive and start to explore it. Most try to graze at the slim picking the ground has to offer, some look uninterested and are already looking for a way out, some even try to hump each other. We track them from behind the abandoned houses, the only indicators of any human life, to another area. But then something happens. Something seemingly trivial but something which will gain a haunting irony as the film progresses: the cattle find an escape!
It's been 8 minutes and you've been watching Béla Tarr's Sátántangó (1994, Hungary).
The specs of the film Satantango, it's building blocks if you will, can sound like the perfect joke about art-house cinema.
Get this: The 7 hours long film, shot in stark black and white has shots that can go up to 10 minutes, in many of these long takes all people do is walk on wet, rainy roads strewn with rubbish, get drunk and dance, scheme, sit and think and well... walk.
But while it is important to know what you are getting into, I believe it is also highly facetious to break the film down to these components alone.
Widely considered to be the 'one of the greatest unseen films of all time', Satantango (based on László Krasznahorkai’s 1985 novel) is about a group of desperate villagers who hatch schemes to steal communal farm's cattle money to try to escape their dreary existence.
Set in 1990 Hungary, the film casts a unique, mesmerizing spell. It is structured like a tango, where six of its twelve parts go forward and six back, resulting in overlapping scenes from different perspectives. This makes sure that we arrive at a scene again, we have more knowledge and understanding of what is happening.
It is a meditation on people trying to make a transition from a totalitarian regime to a Democratic one. Or is it? Is it a jet black satire on people trying to make a transition from a totalitarian regime to a Democratic one? Or, simply, a reflection on people under Communism?
Or, is it simply, a story of people trying to escape their situation?
While the overall tone is grim (did I mention there is a cat torture and a child suicide?), the film is not without black humor and irony. The cattle described above? They are the only ones doing any escaping here.
The cinematography is gorgeous and adds to the richness of the experience. At times, it's like you're being made to stare at a still photograph for the longest time (at times even a GIF.)
The actors are admirably committed and because the shots are this long, there is no scope for any false notes. They almost look hypnotized at times (recalling Heart of Glass, where he actually hypnotized his actors) and their despair comes through not because of drama but because of the mundaneness of their actions (or non-actions).
I have always found the plots of Bela Tarr's films a bit noirish (desperate characters trying to break a cycle and resorting to crime with often tragic results), but his approach is so realistic and meditative that a thriller is the last thing on your mind.
Tarr has famously said that the ideal way to watch his film is in one straight go, without any breaks. He clearly doesn't want you to feel the world he has created. He wants you to live in it.