Shall We Satantango?

by |
07/25/2008 9:00 AM |

Holy crap, Bela Tarr’s legendary seven-hour Satantango was finally released on DVD earlier this week. The L’s Cullen Gallagher watched it all, and wants you to know about it.

Surpassing the high-standards set by the Criterion Collection and Masters of Cinema, Facets’ long-awaited release of Bela Tarr’s Satantango (1994) is a shoe-in for one of the best DVDs of the year. Meticulously restored, the film’s deep, oceanic black-and-white images retain all of Tarr’s signature hypnotic beauty. The film, one of the monuments of world cinema, defies all but the most basic of summaries (which ultimately fails to encapsulate its intimate and still-life-like minutiae). In a desolate and failing farming collective in post-Communist Hungary, a group of villagers live out their days in a ceaseless continuum of despair and poverty. The tragic death of a young girl briefly unites them as they place all their hopes in the false promises of a con man — an act that only perpetuates, rather than relieves, their seemingly eternal condition.

Unfolding over the film’s seven and a half trance-inducing hours, Tarr’s extended long takes (many lasting several minutes) invoke an almost out-of-body experience in the viewer, as real-time blends with Tarr-time and the minutes on-screen encapsulate something both intimately specific and profoundly universal. Time has rarely been used more wisely in cinema than in Satantango, which is, along with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), one of the most resolute cases against wearing wristwatches during a movie. The film’s pacing, more than being deliberate, is absolutely organic and, as those who have seen the film will (hopefully) attest, the hours move by almost unnoticed. Tarr’s unobtrusive observational style approaches the narrative with an empathetic patience: he doesn’t push his characters into situations — they create them for themselves. "The long take is also a token of respect for the integrity of the person," remarked David Bordwell in a transcribed conversation (also including Jonathan Rosenbaum and Scott Foundas) included in the DVD set and which serves as a brilliant introduction to Tarr’s filmography. Rosenbaum elaborated:

"There is a very important moral or ethical dimension to the long takes of faces, or even landscapes, because it’s about being implicated in what you are watching. There are a lot of ways this happens. I think the point is that all of the characters in Satantango certainly are vile individuals, terrible people, but you become complicit with them by being with them for so long…I think that’s what he [Tarr] wants in some way."

What Rosenbaum hits on the nose is the lack of moral authority Tarr asserts over his characters and their actions. He’s not interested in judgment; rather, he’s interested in their experience, and in creating a communal experience that involves the characters on-screen and the audience off-screen, and where the screen in between them serves less as a boundary than an invitation to peer through the looking glass. But instead of seeing any sort of wonderland, we are shown the open wounds of humanity: the heartless who thrive off of the weakness of others, and those who can only persevere and push on ahead, if even in a never-ending circle. As Albert Camus suggested, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Accompanying Satantango is a trio of Tarr rarities. Macbeth (1982) is a made-for-television adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, filmed entirely in two-shots and using almost exclusively close-ups. Tarr’s playful attitude towards temporality is such that while seconds flash by on-screen, years pass by in the story. It’s a time-oriented surrealism, as opposed to the narrative- and logic-driven modes that one typically encounters. Journey on the Plain (1995), a short video based around the poems of Sandor Petofi, was shot using the same locations as Satantango, and Prologue (2004) is a remarkable, five-minute tracking-shot of a welfare food line.

The four films in this collection span twenty-two years of an artist’s career, and they exhibit both continual growth and maturation, but also a steadfast conviction to a particular aesthetic. Seen together, they reveal Bela Tarr’s acute awareness for not only the human condition, but also the aesthetic sensibility of the cinema.