Sátántangó (Béla Tarr, 1994)
In a rural Hungary of post-communism of the 1990’s, a group of farmers decides to free themselves and get their annual salary together to get to a more profitable farm. Leaded by the messianic figure of Irimiás (Mihály Vig who also composed the eerie but transcendental score) along with his collaborator Petrina (Putyi Horváth) the comic relief of the charming that is Irimias and his kind words the group will let their entire salary to the leader to get to a place where they will be their own bosses. Just like Lenny’s farm in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the group will blindly believe the wise mouthed con artist. The other characters are many couples, the Schmidts (László Lugossy and Éva Almássy Albert), the Kraners (János Derzsi and Irén Szajki), the Halics (Alfréd Járai and Erzsébet Gaál), Futaki (Miklós Székely B.), and the hermit doctor (Peter Berling).
For a seven hours film Sátántangó has a very simple story line to summarize. Béla Tarr, the director, challenges his audience right at the beginning of his film with a very long shot of a group of cows getting out of the stable and tracking down multiple buildings to follow the animal. He uses few cuts and the editing of the film is almost done only by the long takes that characterized another great director named Andrei Tarkovsky. The scenes are linked together with a slow pace that sometimes gets us to watch a discussion between two characters that are walking for ten, fifteen, thirty minutes until they disappear in the horizon. The camera never moves and lets us wonder what is our point of view. Shot in a crisp black and white that distances us from the subject while the characters are not particularly attaching and the seem to only care about getting drunk and getting into bed with the neighbor’s wife. One of the many readings of the film is the demonstration of how communism and capitalism have failed the human race and only benefited the rats of society. It could be a rather right observation and also a very pessimistic one. In fact, the film carries a dark feeling that leads us to think and react about the subjects.
Why it has been so recognized as one of the greatest films of the 1990’s by critics and cinephiles one could ask. Well first, Tarr didn’t made any compromise by creating every mise en scène of the film. By that, I mean the pouring rain, the wind, the elements that nature could have provide, Tarr recreates them and plays God in his creation. It looks like an artist’s installation that tries to provide the closest possible representation of life but knowing that he controls the whole thing. Tarr even wants to control the audience by imposing them to watch the entire film uncut and without any interruptions. One thing the author of these lines didn’t do because of his lack of time to actually sit during seven and a half hour.
This is very audacious because it is not a very profitable exercise since not many theaters actually showed Sátántangó. Also, it is often regarded as something very pretentious to make such an epic film with so much dedication and thoroughness. Shooting such long takes involves a lot of preparation and one take can take up to a day to set and shot. Rehearsals are not counted here since Tarr seems to state that the actors were improvising their dialogues and the script was more or less followed.
However, even if it’s not much profitable and pretentious to some, Sátántangó reveals a master director that offered few films to the cinephiles. With his The Turin Horse in 2012, what he considers his final film, Tarr will be remembered as one of the most interesting and bold creators of the seventh art. Being my first experience with any of Béla Tarr’s cinema I feel that I must dig deeper into his other celebrated work to feel how his touch and signature may have marked films. It is a little weaker than the masterpiece I was expecting but still a very strong visual experience and an inspiring vision from its maker. It also brings fresh air and shows that one does not need a lot to tell a story in an unique way.