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If I asked you if you wanted to watch a seven hour film your first reaction might be to say, "No, probably not". If I then tell you that the film is very slow paced, has a grungy look, has rain in almost every scene, is in black & white and has subtitles you will probably laugh and say, "No way". If I then tell you that the film is somewhat confusing at times, has one 35 minute real time scene where an old drunk writer stumbles around his dingy house looking for plum brandy till he collapses and also includes an extended sequence where a young girl abuses and kills a cat you might turn the other way and run.
But there are some of you out there who will be intrigued and wonder why this film has the reputation that it does and has been called one of the best films of the 1990's.
I won't lie. Sátántangó is a tough film, a rigorous experience and not one I am completely sure is top drawer cinema. But having seen it twice - once in the theater and once on DVD - I will say it is an experience one doesn't easily forget. The cat torture scene alone will shake you up. [Note: the director assures us that the cat was unharmed and was actually his own pet].
The film is directed by Bela Tarr and, much like the Hungarian novel by László Krasznahorkai from which it is based, is segmented into twelve chapters each of which overlap in time showing us the film from a different perspective and then moving forward; sort of a two steps forward one step back narrative technique.
The film takes place is a small [post-communist] Hungarian village where the folks are in economic dire straights and backstabbing each other to get ahead and survive. Some of the folks are attempting to bilk the others out of their share of a recent cattle sale; the film's opening shot is of a bunch of cows slowly on the move through the town's muddy streets. Suddenly, the villagers get word that a man name Irimias [Mihály Vig] - long thought dead - is returning. He represents a savior of sorts and, sure enough, as he arrives - accompanied by another man - he takes control and holds sway over the town. He soon convinces them to give over the share of their savings to him and he will lead them to a promised land of sorts.
But just who is this Irimias guy?
Sátántangó has few scenes and some of them are repeated throughout from another perspective. The longest being one drunken night where the villages gather in the local pub, drink, bicker and dance to an accordion until they pass out. The scene dominates the middle section of the film and points in some ways to the cruelty and tragedy of the death of the little girl [who after torturing the cat decides rat poison is her best fate]. But, as in any good movie, each scene segues into the next. After the death of the little girl Irimias walks into her funeral and - like a savior [or a politician]- exploits the tragedy to spur the town into giving up their money and following him to the next village.
So what is it all about? So far as plot is concerned it is not too hard to follow - it just takes a lot longer to get through each scene than your usual film and it doesn't have the kind of focus one might be accustomed to. However, as far as theme is concerned, the film takes a rather bleak view of humanity; especially with regards to a void of leadership, which is pretty much what happened after the fall of communism. But it also shows the way in which most people are only in it for themselves and that when times get tough not everyone can be trusted. This is clearly not Steinbeck country.
Plot aside the film is all about pace, setting, rhythm, framing, camera movement, aural sound design, off camera space and all the fabulous cinematic tricks that have been done so well by the likes of such film masters as Andrei Tarkovsky, Miklos Jancsó, Theo Angelopolous and Michelangelo Antonioni.
It's a mesmerizing film if for no other reason than that it has a lot of long slow takes. But unlike the above named directors Bela Tarr is not as much into created a sense of awe or mystery. He is more of a cynical realist. In one particularly striking scene [in hour six] Irimias and his two sidekicks encounter thick fog rolling in over an old stone house ruin. Irimias drops to his knees in awe for a minute. Then he stands up and as they walk away one of the guys makes a sardonic quip: 'What, you've never seen fog before?'
Another scene has the three walking into a town square. Suddenly, the camera rises above them and a bunch of horses gallop into the town square. It's a beautiful scene. Then as the horses run out of the square one of the guys says, 'They have escaped the slaughterhouse again.'
Its scenes like this that keep Sátántangó from being overly dramatic or serious. But nonetheless there is always an underlying sense of dread in each scene. It is also paced like a long day of slow thick fog that just sits there in its own quiet realm. Because of this it isn't a film for the impatient. But who cares? Not every film can be fast paced, simplistic and short. Bela Tarr [who has directed a few other terrific films also available through Facets] has no such pretensions to the mainstream. And that alone is a reason to recommend this film.
The film is presented in a widescreen letterbox 1.66:1 aspect ratio but it is not 16 X 9 compatable. This is too bad considering Tarr not only composes for widescreen but holds shots for such a long time that you can get lost in them. If you have an HD TV you will have to zoom in, which is not recommended, or watch it stretched, which is hard to take if you care about the look of a movie. The transfer is good in the sense that the picture is fairly sharp, has noticeable grain and has been restored.
The audio is in Hungarian and Dolby Digital 2.0. It is good but not great. Tarr uses sound very well but he doesn't pump it up. Sounds often float in the background giving the film a mood and a feeling more than a score. If you have a really good sound system it will enhance the film. Facets hasn't done anything to tweak the sound.
After seven hours who wants extras? Well, there are some. The film is presented on three discs. There is a fourth disc with Tarr's TV version of Macbeth made in 1982. It is in color and done in two takes. Due to the fact that the script is essentially Shakespeare there are a number of subtitles. There is also a 30 min color video titled Journey on the Plain, which features the actor who played Irimias walking around the Sátántangó locations spouting bleak Hungarian poetry. It is mainly made up of long takes just like the movie. There is a five minute documentary about the restoration that shows how they restored the print. The best extra is a short five minute single take film called Prologue that is masterful, informative and socially conscious. Also included is a 23 page booklet that is a transcript of a symposium on Tarr done at Facets in Chicago and includes Jonathan Rosenbaum, David Bordwell and Scott Foundas.
Sátántangó takes a committed viewer to completely enjoy [and possibly understand] but it is a film worth a look for anyone interested. I say if you can sit around and watch TV for seven hours then how can you be afraid of the length? I would also say that this is an era where you don't have to watch everything in one sitting. The DVD is made up of three discs. Watch one disc a night. Or spread it over a week. However, I would recommend not going too long between watchng the discs since it throws off the film's rhythm. Test yourself on this one. Enjoy. And if you like this then check out Tarr's two masterpieces; The Werckmeister Harmonies and Damnation. Both of which are less than three hours in length.