Satantango, Bela Tarr’s 1994 glacier of cinema, recently screened at New York’s Anthology Film Archives as part of Jonas Mekas’ “Boring Masterpieces” series. The title for this series is, obviously, disingenuous. Satantango may require 7 ½ hours of attention, and in normal circumstances the film would be quite boring. But Satantango is drily humorous, apocalyptic, suspenseful and just too damn ambitious to be boring. It is something to write home about, and an experience that is not easy to put in to words.
If anything must be said to summarize Satantango, is that unlike other films, it does not reduce minutes of existence to mere seconds. To watch this film is to see actual time not simply unfold, but become extended in to some sort of trance, beyond the distracted and mentally cluttered way we ever experience it in real life. A truck pulled by horses moves towards a deserted house in the middle of the Hungarian plain; it creaks and grumbles over the dirt road as we move closer and closer to the house’s giant door. A brother and sister dig a hole in the ground amidst a few trees, as the brother instructs the sister on how to tie the bag of coins they will bury; the camera anxiously approaches from afar, until settling on a close-up of the bag. Drunken reveler’s dance to incessant, catchy accordion music in a pub, for a real half hour. These are actual observed experiences. Satantango uses the observational qualities of cinema— the acts of watching something move, and spying on people in front of you—and brings them to their extreme, in shots that rarely run shorter than five minutes. With these long takes, we are getting a narrative of essential minutes rather than trimmed, potentially essential seconds.
There is no need to state that this is what long takes inherently do, because most long-take driven films fail to accomplish such a thing. The achievement of Bela Tarr’s, which is also cinematographer Gabor Medvigy’s, composer/actor Mihaly Vig’s, and really all of the cast and crew’s achievement, is that they made us see rather than look. This is the ideal state of all films, but Satantango actually did it, in an ominous, rumbling way. Never mind, if possible, that seeing this film means sitting still for more than seven hours (with an intermission or two). Satantango leaves one with the feeling of having accomplished a rewarding ordeal, similar to hiking a tall mountain, or going for a marathon run. It is endurance cinema, but the opposite of boring cinema.
But the film’s technique has already been praised elsewhere, quite extensively. As it happens, Satantango is not so full of its ambition as to be story-less experience. The structure is that of a tango, dividing the film in to twelve sections, many of them overlapping The setting is a rundown Hungarian village in the early 90’s (we can only assume). A long dolly of cows wandering around a field, past a barn immediately lets us know this is a farming community. But it’s a farming community gone to seed. A group of villagers are conniving to escape the town, with a chunk of money. The one obstacle is that rumors are going around town that two men thought to have died have actually returned to the village; these men are Irimias (Mihaly Vig) and Petrina (Putyi Horvath). They have recently been released from prison and possess big plans for prosperity. That these men are righteously lazy and renegade and spontaneously gangster-ish—in one scene, threatening to blow a bar full of people up with dynamite—does not detract from Irimias charisma and the willingness of many villagers to listen to him. (It is given to understand that they came up with some brilliant farming solution years before that temporarily saved the community.) But Irimias and Petrina are in fact con men of gigantic proportions, and all they need to carry out their scheme is the folly of everybody else. Villagers quarrel, drink, lose focus. A prostitute mother rejects her disturbed daughter, leading to one of the weirder, scarier sequences in the film, and ending in her daughter’s death. These events lead Irimias to gather the villagers together and start, as he lies about it, a new farming collective.
It is generally not good practice to impose an allegory on every film to come out of a downtrodden, if not third world, country. But Satantango, with its central theme of a criminal proclaiming himself a leader who knows the solution, thereby leading a group of regular people to their doom, makes it pretty easy. That the film was shot the moment Soviet Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe makes it even easier, though to be fair, it was adapted from a novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai published a few years earlier. To a worldly western audience, watching the film as an allegory may be the best thing our minds can jump to.
In any case, general audiences will sooner recognize that Satantango is a black, sometimes hilarious comedy before anything else. Tarr and Krasznahorkai’s sense of humor is not highbrow, and sometimes self-referential; it is made up of jokes such as an accordionist who stays soberly playing music while drunken bar-goers pass out all around him, before drinking up their remaining alcohol and vomiting off camera. Or like that of Irimias kneeling down in a clearing in the woods watching the ever-present fog creep over a stone building before Petrina asks him; “What’s the matter? You’ve never seen fog before?” If this is a film that can make a joke about its own artiness before slipping back in to pure, omniscient engagement, then perhaps we really do have a masterpiece on our hands.
The key figure to Satantango may be the town doctor, played by the German actor Peter Berling. Ill, short-tempered, and reclusive, the doctor spends his days drinking brandy and spying on his neighbors out the window. In a sequence devoted to him, he leaves the house to get more brandy, gets lost in the rain and collapses by the side of the road before being rescued. The doctor is the artist of the film, an all-knowing presence who can’t even take care of himself. We can either identify with him the most, for being the artist’s perspective, or like him the least, for not doing anything about the town’s plight. But he certainly is on to something in the way he observes and takes notes. This is precisely the way we watch Satantango. Since there is no other film like it, why shouldn’t we observe it again and again? I for one, like Susan Sontag, would gladly watch this film repeatedly, at least once a year.