Thursday, January 10, 2013

Sátántangó (1994): Brilliant/Tedious

What to say of Sátántangó (Satan’s Tango), Bela Tarr’s seven-hour black and white film set mostly in a desolate Hungarian village where the ugly, grunting inhabitants live in squalor and drink too much? That it’s an amazing achievement? That’s it’s a colossal bore? That it has some brilliant scenes? That the storyline makes no sense? That the soundtrack is beautiful? That the dialogue is full of annoying non sequiturs? Yes, all of these things…

Susan Sontag is quoted on the DVD cover saying she could happily watch it every year, but for most people no doubt the question will just be: is it worth watching even once? For me, if Tarr had cut out the second, sixth and most of the seventh hour, I’d have no problem wholeheartedly recommending it. As it is, I’m not quite so sure. The middle section of the film, focusing on a little girl and a cat, and a lot of drunken people dancing in a bar, seemed the most involving and successful to me. The hour before that, focusing on a fat doctor breathing very heavily in his horrible little hovel of a home and going out on a long walk in search of a drink, really tested my patience. And most of the last two hours of the film - the final 15 minutes is an exception - seemed completely pointless and unengaging. What was all that stuff about Irimias (Mihály Vig) leading the villagers to live in another town? It just went nowhere. I had to read up online to understand what was supposed to be going on, and even then it didn’t really help.

This is such a film of contrasts. The opening scene with the cows is haunting, mesmeric and totally unique, and a later scene with horses running through a town square is also wonderful. There are two very similar extended shots filmed from behind of people walking down streets through pouring rain and a howling wind, with litter flying everywhere, and the effect is amazing. (They look like they were filmed from a truck carrying a dozen wind-machines). The general setting of the film - flat barren countryside, usually under grey skies and rain - is bleakly beautiful and I was happy to be there.  But what on earth are we supposed to make of that 15-minute scene of two uniformed men in an office typing up a report, or that scene toward the end where Irimias and his companions meet a man in restaurant and seem to discuss something very important. The dialogue is completely impenetrable, nonsensical even. The film is full of stuff like this.

Sátántangó was my first Bela Tarr film and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Clips I’d seen of his films previously gave the impression he was only into slowness for slowness’ sake, and that’s not really true. This film had many moments of invention and humour and some long passages I really liked, which got me through the boring bits. But on the other hand it annoyed the hell out of me. I’d recommend it - just about- because I’ve never seen anything like it and it’s unforgettable and Bela Tarr is clearly an artist. But there were whole hours of it when all I could think was; what planet is this guy from? It’s a completely confounding brilliant/tedious movie and I can’t help but wonder: what made him write all that terrible dialogue (it’s based on a novel by László Krasznahorkai)? What made him shoot so many irrelevant scenes? What was his overall conception of the movie? I’d really like to know. Because the movie itself doesn’t seem to answer that question. Maybe he could make a movie to explain this movie? In the meantime I must admit I am now more intrigued by the prospect of his other films: Werkmeister Harmonies, The Man from London, The Turin Horse etc.  

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