All we know for certain is that life is very hard on us.
Take a close look at your movie-related bucket list. Does it include Belá Tarr’s seven plus hour magnum opus Sátántangó? If not, then I’m sincerely hoping that it’s purely the result of being unaware that such a film existed.Put it this way, Sátántangó is a white whale; one of those films that you want to see simply to say that you’ve seen it. But it is simply more than a canonical piece of bragging rights, it is also an all-time masterpiece. There are no films like this, not even really in Tarr’s cinematography, although his style and general thematic aims are similar across his body of work.
The first main outlier is the film’s monumental length, which partially explains why it’s been a bucket list item for many cinephiles. Until recently few home video copies existed, with a sole DVD release from the 90s consisting of one of the few places the film could be found. Similarly, few theaters have the capacity to show a roughly seven-and-a-half-hour film, meaning the retrospective theatres have had little incentive and ability to provide one off screenings. Small studio Arbelos Films recently completed a (gorgeous) 4K restoration of the piece, and it has been touring select art house theaters since. As well, with the closure of theaters all across the continent they’ve opened up Vimeo rentals that last for 72 hours, although the price point is a little steep. Your library may also have access through Kanopy streaming, which recently procured the ability to stream the film.
In many respects, I’m a little disappointed that my first foray was not in a theater setting. Mainly, because I ended up watching this in two sittings. Memo to those who plan to partake in this behemoth: starting at roughly 7pm on a Tuesday is a sure-fire way to not complete the film. At around midnight my eyes became very heavy, and thus, I had to finish the film the next morning. Do not do this! Sátántangó is one of those films that you need to plan ahead watching. Tarr has suggested that the ideal way to see the film is right through all in one sitting. Trying to get as close as you can to that is for the best.
The run time is one of the many overwhelming facets of Sátántangó. The film is structured around numerous title cards, which act in a similar fashion to chapter markers. There are two intermissions built into the film. The first one comes a full two and a quarter hours into the film. Keep this in mind, roughly two and a quarter hours would be considered epic length by average film standards. Here, it’s basically the first act. It’s natural for one’s brain to get to the intermission and think “my god, there’s still five more hours of this.” Thus, the feeling you get at the end of Sátántangó is one of accomplishment. Each hour mark is a milestone that progressively weighs more on the audience, you’re a little closer to the conclusion, and yet, the end seems progressively further away.
Also overwhelming is the narrative of Sátántangó. I’ve talked at length for pieces on this site about the difference between novelistic and novel-like, and I firmly believe that Tarr’s film falls into the former category. There’s a breadth of detail present in this film, which further makes it feel impenetrable. Plot points and scenes seem to be disconnected from each other; they overlap, and feature scenes being replayed from multiple perspectives. The idea for the structure was developed from the concept of tango, with six steps forward and six steps backwards, which is represented by the twelve unique chapters of the film. Each section is book ended by third person narration.
Some scenes are completely superfluous. One of the enduring images of the film is a two-minute-long take from the backs for two characters walking amidst a ferocious wind. The debris on the ground like a trash tornado. These two characters will head into a town, the only moments of urbanity in the film, for the purpose of purchasing some explosives. This is never brought up again, and the explosives are never used. Tarr ostensibly sneers right in the face of Anton Chekhov.
Two-minutes is an expedited scene in Sátántangó. The film opens with a ten-minute-long Steadicam shot, and takes of this magnitude are routine. It’s another overwhelming factor of the film. More edits would stitch together the narrative in a more cohesive way, but the narrative is not the film’s purpose. Tarr’s film is one of the canonical works within the art house Slow Cinema genre. The purpose of the film is for the audience to feel the time, to feel the weight of the world that is created. The film is in black and white, but it’s a particularly grey film. The lack of light dims the world, and makes it feel apocalyptic. It’s an effect that exacerbates the general decay of the landscape. The film focuses on two days of a Hungarian village collapsing at the complete decay of communist Hungary. It’s the middle of winter. There are no leaves on the branches of twisted trees, and no crops to be grown. All that is left in terms of communal space is a local bar, where villagers drunkenly dance away the dull terrors of the world around them.
Would I watch Sátántangó again? Absolutely. I cannot wait for the right circumstances to do so. For starters, what is a better piece of bragging rights than being able to say that you’ve seen the seven-and-a-half-hour film twice? But what makes this more than simply a piece of bragging rights that you use to “X” off another section of your bucket list, is that the film is simply incredible. It’s filled with innumerable haunting and arresting images. For a seven-hour piece of slow cinema, you’d think the film would be boring. This isn’t the case at all. I want to see it again, simply to find the words to talk about Sátántangó, confident that they may likely never come.
What it all adds up to is a true cinematic experience. Words are difficult to come by when thinking about Sátántangó. It’s an experience that you need to see for yourself, and one that undoubtedly should be on your cinematic bucket list.
- Rated: NR
- Genre: Drama
- Directed by: Béla Tarr
- Starring: Éva Almássy Albert, János Derzsi, László feLugossy, Mihály Vig, Putyi Horváth
- Produced by: György Fehér, Joachim von Vietinghoff, Ruth Waldburger
- Written by: Barna Mihók, Béla Tarr, László Krasznahorkai, Mihály Vig, Péter Dobai
- Studio: Mozgókép Innovációs Társulás és Alapítvány, Vega Film, Von Vietinghoff Filmproduktion (VVF)