Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó is not exactly a mainstream movie. In fact, you’d be hard pushed to invent a filmed entertainment that would seem more offputting to the casual viewer: it’s Hungarian, it’s shot in black and white, it’s set in muddy farmland where it rains all the time, it has a murky and barely explained plot that the director doesn’t seem particularly interested in, and it’s comprised nearly entirely of takes that last between five and ten minutes, many of which feature no dialogue and the most minimal action possible. And if you’re not put off by that, you should probably also know that it lasts seven and a half hours.
Well, sometimes I like a challenge. I’ve been circling this film for a while now, ever since I saw Tarr’s later Werckmeister Harmonies a few years ago. That film is shot in exactly the same style (but is of a much more digestible length) and stayed with me in a way that few arthouse follies do. I eventually got it on DVD and found myself watching and rewatching certain scenes and finding them fascinating in a similar way that one sometimes clicks with wilfully experimental, dischordant or unsettling pieces of music. There’s not much commercial appeal in Tarr’s work, but there’s an awful lot of formal craft – he might spend ten minutes showing you a lorry gradually approaching and pulling up beside a building, but you can be assured that the scene will be perfectly composed and lit, that any camera moves will be graceful and economical and that there will be plenty of incidental detail to hold your attention even if the main event of the shot doesn’t.
Sátántangó was released in 1994, and had taken four years to film. Given its marathon length it’s understandable that not many cinemas showed it, but those that did would screen it with two intervals, and those that saw it wouldn’t easily forget it. These days it’s on DVD and represents less of a commitment. It’s not considered unusual to get through a whole season of a TV show in one weekend now via the convenience of boxsets, and plenty of those have much longer running lengths than this film. The film is conveniently divided into twelve chapters and a prologue, and while these are of unequal lengths, it does provide clear stopping points. I watched the film in six or seven sessions, but would have been happy to do it in fewer given the chance.
The film opens with a shot of a muddy field and some rundown outbuildings, some cows and bulls gradually becoming discernible at the far end as the camera starts a slow pan from right to left. On the soundtrack there’s just ambient sound and a distorted electronic pulse. After a minute or so you may be thinking “hmm, this is a bit boring”. After two you may be wondering how long the director can keep it up. After five you may well have turned the thing off, or if you’re like me you might find yourself mesmerised – this film seems to almost literally slow your body clock and generate a calm, contemplative mood similar to that I understand Transcendental Meditation is supposed to induce. This opening shot eventually runs for about eight minutes and forms an ideal taster for the curious viewer, and if you can cope with this there’s plenty more like it to come.
The next section of the film actually features some people, and like the environment they live in they’re all some way past their prime. In fact, Sátántangó is a great showcase for lined, aged and gnarly faces of the type that you’d be more likely to see at the bus-stop than on the big screen. Initially we see a middle-aged cripple who has to hide when the husband of the woman he’s been sleeping with unexpectedly returns to their house. These characters are part of an ill-defined agricultural collective and the little strands of plot that begin to surface concern a sum of cash that the community has accumulated which could represent escape for one or two of them, but certainly not all. A plot is being hatched by the cuckold to abscond with the money, which the crippled man becomes party to after he overhears the details, but these plans are thrown into confusion by the return to the farm of the charismatic and manipulative Irimiás, who was previously assumed to be dead.
The above summary isn’t really a spoiler, as the point and appeal of this film is nothing to do with telling the story, which is there just to provide a bare framework for some extraordinarily bleak, beautiful, sometimes harrowing and sometimes hilarious sequences. We spend an hour or so in the company of the village’s obese and alcoholic doctor as he realises he’s run out of fruit brandy and laboriously prepares to leave his house and tramp through mud and rain to find some more. There’s a ten minute unbroken take of the villagers in varying degrees of drunkenness dancing to an accordion player in the local bar which ends on a spider crawling over abandoned glasses as if on cue. There are many virtuoso tracking shots of characters walking or stumbling down ill-maintained roads and tracks while freak weather effects take place around them. In one shot the camera slowly closes in through several hundred metres of woodland on two characters talking in the far distance. And in a sequence that’s hard to stomach a ten year old girl takes out her frustration at being betrayed by her brother and ignored by her mother on her pet cat by wrestling with it and then poisoning it (note for animal lovers: the cat used in this section doesn’t suffer any more abuse than it would get on a trip to the vet for a routine inspection, and a vet was indeed on hand to safeguard the animal while the scenes were filmed. It’s the fact that the shots are held for so long that makes this part so upsetting. The three shots are in the fifth chapter “Comes Unstitched” if you want to skip them).
Sátántangó has a slightly nonlinear structure, in which events are sometimes replayed and seen from different perspectives (in fact two of the later chapters are called “Perspective From The Front” and “Perspective From The Rear”). This isn’t overplayed, but does lend interest when the same scene occurs within two separate sections but from a different character’s point of view each time.
In case this all sounds irredeemably arty and pretentious, it should be pointed out that there’s an earthy and blackly cynical vein of humour running through Sátántangó. While it sometimes looks similar to the films of Tarkovsky, none of the characters are notably troubled by existential questions or are prone to making deep philosophical speeches, and the one character who is given extended and flowery monologues has somewhat suspect motives behind them. In Bergman films characters are tortured by the absence of God – here, they’re tortured by the absence of brain-rotting alcohol.
Cat abuse apart, I was surprised at how quickly I got through Sátántangó and how eager I was to rejoin it after a break. It’s such a singular and uncompromised project that I couldn’t ever wholeheartedly recommend it as a few evenings’ entertainment but I’ll certainly be spending time with it again.