Director: Béla Tarr
Cast: Mihály Vig, Peter Berling, Erika Bók, László Lugossy
Runtime: 420 minutes
My Rating: ★★★★★, or 10/10
In Short: Bleak, bold, beautiful, black-and-white; one of the greatest films ever made
They are haunted by the sound of bells. Futaki rises from his slumber and hears them, early in the film. Near the movie’s end, the town Doctor does the same. The only chapel nearby has no bell, so there is no explanation as to where the sound is coming from. But still it persists.
Sátántangó, surely one of the greatest films ever made, marked the most fantastic achievement in Hungarian cinema. The auteur Béla Tarr had only made a handful of films before it, and they were all of equally normal length. Sátántangó, an adaptation of a novel by Lázló Krasznahorkai, took four years – and every ounce of strength – to make, and to see it now is to see the definition of perfect filmmaking, each shot precise and incredibly meaningful. The film only becomes more startling and effective as time goes by, because of the distinctly unpleasant setting, the sobering black-and-white cinematography, the depression of the characters and the cynicism of the plot, compared to the mainstream sickness that has overtaken Hollywood movies.
Clocking in at exactly seven hours in length, Sátántangó is one of the longest films you’ll see. But the brilliance of such long movies is not that they say more things, but the say the same thing more clearly. As Roger Ebert once said: “Most films are short stories. [Very long films] are novels.” Sátántangó, like other long films such as Shoah, Fanny and Alexander and The Best of Youth, are so good because they get the audience so involved in their story that they don’t want the film to end. Realistically, Sátántangó doesn’t have much of a plot, but the plot it does have is stretched out so finely across the seven hours that it flows by slowly, doesn’t hurry to its destination, and is content in observing the small details of life.
It is the story of a small farm collective in a delapitated slum of countryside Hungary. The fall of communism has just come to pass, and its effects are still being felt on the residents of the area. Futaki is sleeping with the wife of Schmidt, who comes home early. Futaki just manages to sneak out the back, and overhears Schmidt’s plans to take the town’s money and run. However, these plans are obstructed by the arrival of Irimiás and Petrina, who plan to do the exact same thing. Other characters in the film include Mr and Mrs Halics, Mr and Mrs Kráner, a little girl named Estike, and the town Doctor, a drunk who refuses to leave his house, but decides to embark into the bitter cold rain to get more alcohol. We explore these characters and their journeys and plans through the twelve sections the film is split into. Some are as short as ten minutes, some as long as a full hour.
The most moving and important sections, Know Something and Comes Unstitched, are in the film’s first half, and their effect is sobering due to their length and their content. They are the longest sections in the film. Know Something follows the isolated doctor’s journey to the local bar, and Comes Unstitched sees the girl Estike be robbed, left alone, and retaliate by torturing and poisoning her cat, and then herself. All the bitter events in the film are presented in long, haunting takes that last as long as ten minutes in many cases. Chapter six of the film, The Spider’s Function Part II, features a long dance sequence that is filmed in long, unbroken takes that see actors who are actually drunk, gallivanting around a bar and moving between and around each other as a wheezing accordion plugs an incessantly ringing tune.
One of the strengths of this film, which not only makes its idea of seven hours bearable, but also interesting too, is that the film is not presented in chronological order. Many different parts of the film are set along the exact same timeline, and scenes we saw happen in one part of the film, might reappear again from another person’s perspective later on. For example, when Futaki sneaks out of Schmidt’s house in the first part of the film, we see the Doctor observing this exact same thing occur in part three! This effect is also used hauntingly in the aforementioned drunk dance sequence, which is placed in the film directly after the chapter in which Estike commits suicide. However, since these two sequences are set on the same timeline, there is a shot in the dance sequence of Estike at the window, her near-lifeless face staring lonely at the drunk patrons, both disgusted with them but wanting to join them. Instead, she is left out in the coldness of the night, like so many of the other characters, and so many of us in real life.
The latter six parts of the film see Irimiás convince the townspeople to leave their repulsive village and join him in building a new town, a haven where all can live in peace, without the nightmare of isolation and suicide. He requests they give him money to help build this paradise, but to the audience his true intentions become clear. The last time we see any of the townspeople that left is in the tenth part of the film, in which we see them lying asleep in sleeping bags, as the narrator tells the audience what they’re dreaming of – both beautiful dreams and saddening nightmares. This intensely moving scene is made even more powerful by the knowledge of how awfully they’ve been tricked, which is revealed further in part eleven, a comic scene which consists of two men censoring a letter from Irimiás in which he details how much he hates the townspeople.
And then there is the final 30 minutes of the film, one of the most haunting sequences of Tarr’s career, in which we see the doctor sitting in his house, staring out the window, roused by the distant sound of bells. He stumbles outside to investigate, and upon returning to his home, boards up the windows and suspends himself in complete darkness, reiterating the same – or similar – dialogue that opened the film. This ending is chilling, foreboding and nightmarish, a fantastic way to end the film, and is only one of the movie’s many brilliant moments. The doctor is perhaps the film’s most important character, perhaps even a symbol of Tarr himself. He observes the goings on in the town, the naïve beliefs of the idiotic townspeople, and disgusted and disturbed by it all, he boards up the windows and sits in the darkness, the only place where for him, true peace and solitude can be found.