Bela Tarr’s Satantango, Macguffins, And The Light Touch Of Narrative

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/4/09


  In 1994, Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr released a seven hour black and white film called Satantango (Satan’s Tango in English) that presented a conundrum for both the purveyors of plot-driven, character-empty Lowest Common Denominator blockbuster action summer movies and those who favor the cerebral, pretentious, film school fawning indulgences of Eurotrash (aka World Cinema) filmmaking. The conundrum was how can time be manipulated by the artist (filmmaker) so that the viewer (percipient) is removed from its passage? No, that theme is never directly stated nor implied in the film’s frames, but it is there, and Satantango is a film that, like Chris Marker’s La Jetee, will stand as a milestone in cinema history. Like Marker’s film, Satantango is a great film, and I will detail and argue such in this essay. But, I believe that it could well be the sort of film that, decades hence, serves as the template for what remains of modern cinema culture.

  Ok, what the hell do I mean? Simple, by the middle of this century, film, as we know it, will be dead. The current trend of simplistic video game level filmmaking put forth by Hollywood, and aimed at the twentysomething and younger crowd, will definitively make a clean break from the ‘true (not pure) cinema’ for adults; the kind that Satantango represents. Now, while it is clear that Tarr has had predecessors in such films- from Orson Welles to Michelangelo Antonioni to Stanley Kubrick to Theo Angelopoulos and some of the other major directors of the last century (as well as having heirs apparent in directors like Nuri Bilge Ceylan)- I feel that by the sheer length of the film, and the way the film manipulates the viewer into suspending temporal reality whilst immersed in it, Satantango may well be seen as the film that augured the path that adult cinema took on its way to becoming an intelligent, passive art that plucks at different ways of manipulating experience by using the mind’s own limits in its service, versus the childish and cartoonish puerile cinema that allows the manipulation of experience by means of interactive cyber-stimulants. In other words, there will be two major art forms under the heading motion pictures- one will be the virtual reality world of blockbuster cinema- influenced by, and descended from, video games, comic books, b films, slasher films, teen comedies, and rock videos, where the viewer will not only emotionally be with Vin Diesel as he kills or fucks Angelina Jolie, but virtually be there, to help Diesel kick ass and fuck the brains out of Jolie. The other will be true cinema, where one is transported to another place by the willful suspension of disbelief, due to the ways that innovative and creative filmmakers learn to use and reuse old techniques, as well as finding newer ones to provoke the viewer into a nearly co-creative experience.

  Now, as I mentioned, Tarr was not the first to employ such techniques, and Satantango was not even his first film to use such. But, this film was the first to push such to their logical ends, and because of that insight, Satantango (made in the 20th Century) may well be to 21st Century true cinema what Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass (made in the 19th Century) was to 20th Century poetry. By that, I do not mean that Satantango is an augur for super-long films; rather that it, like Whitman’s poetry, will provoke future filmmakers to innovate in ways that they would not have had Tarr not shown how radically different he could make film be from the rather banal base of the mainstream.

  The 420 minute long film, which I watched on the Region 2 DVD package, put out by Artificial Eye, is shown in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and comes on 3 disks, which comprise its 12 sections. The print is rather good, although sections are in mediocre shape, splotched with flecks and occasionally larger bits of  damage. Sections 1-3 are on Disk One and runs about two hours and ten minutes long, Sections 4-6 are on Disk Two and runs about an hour and fifty-five minutes, and Sections 7-12 are on Disk Three and runs about 2 hours and fifty-five minutes. The breaks are not DVD breaks, but breaks in the actual film, separated by intertitles. The three disks, however, do correspond with the fifteen minute long named ‘Intervals’ in the theatrical version of the film. The film is subtitled in white, which occasionally means text is unfortunately ‘whited out’ when against pale backgrounds, but, overall, since the spoken word is not in primacy in this film, the subtitles have little effect, pro or con.

  The film opens with a long tracking shot, laden with bells that give a gothic feel, that takes up about eight minutes. It follows a herd of cows walking across a muddy barnyard. Percussive bells thrum and gong in the background music, but nothing much happens, save for mood. But what a mood! For all the hype about Tarr’s being a European art cinema director, any cineaste who watches this sequence and does not have flashbacks to horror film images- from the silents through Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr through the Universal films of the 1930s through the Hammer films of the 1960s and 1970s- simply needs to watch more film. Furthermore, not only does the opening sequence give the viewer the feel and foreboding of a horror film, it actually augurs a horror film, for, essentially, that is what Satantango is- a realistic (albeit highly stylized) horror film. Ingmar Bergman’s The Hour Of The Wolf is generally regarded as the sine qua non of avant-garde horror films, but Satantango is a) a better film, and b) ground in true horror. There are no supernatural entities abounding, nor are any implied, as in Bergman’s film. The horror is what stems from within the small coterie of characters that, over the length of the film (and despite its slow revelations) we come to know.

  After the opening sequence, the rest of Part One, titled The News Is They Are Coming, introduces us to three of the major characters: Schmidt (László Lugossy)- a cowardly schemer who seeks to pilfer the collective money of the small farming commune, his fleshy and libidinous wife (Éva Almássy Albert, who, in a great moment, squats over a wash bowl and cleans her twat of her lover’s cum), and her lover, a cripple named Futaki (Miklós Székely B.). This section is a mental chess game between the two males- Futaki feels superior because he knows Schmidt’s schemes and is cuckolding him, while Schmidt feels that he has one up on Futaki and is not a cripple. Mrs. Schmidt watches as her two men battle, only to get the news that a former resident of the commune- a young man named Irimias (Mihály Vig, who also did the wonderful film score), and his sidekick Petrina (Putyi Horváth), have been seen headed back to the collective. They were assumed dead, and this is the first of many misassumptions the film plays on. It also allows for the first de facto flashback, which comes in Part Two. I say de facto because, in essence, there is no ‘now’ in the film. The first part of the film could, actually, be a flashforward, and Part Two be the ‘now.’ Regardless, upon the news of the return of the once thought dead Irimias, the two men divvy up their loot, and prepare for the worst, as Irimias is now regarded as something more than a criminal kingpin, if less than a Messianic figure. Also, throughout the film, many of the sections open and close with the narration of what seems to be an omniscient being. Sometimes the comments are obvious and superfluous, while other times they are summary of very poetic and moving.

  Part Two, Rise From The Dead, opens with a long tracking shot, from behind, of two figures walking down a long, rainy, windblown street. The taller figure, in the fedora, with long hair and facial hair (with a deliberately Christ-like visage- hence the second section’s title), is Irimias- an apothegm spouting con man, Petrina is a shorter, plump man whose bearing and gait reminds one of the character of Silent Bob, from the comedies of American filmmaker Kevin Smith (who portrayed that character). After their long walk, they are seen in the office of some government official (a typical apparatchik) and we get a sense that they are under government surveillance. For what reasons or crimes we never find out. We also do not know if they have been co-opted or are playing along. And what this has to do with the rather motley and inoffensive crowd at the commune is never explained. Many critics have leapt to the conclusion that, since the film was released in 1994 (and shot between 1990-94), this most be seen as a damning critique of a) communism, b) the disarray that followed its fall, or c) the general anarchy and incompetence of any governmental bureau. I don’t. In fact, this whole second section of the film is what Alfred Hitchcock would have called the macguffin. Since there is no real follow up on the governmental department’s plans, why do we see this? Yes, it gives us a small sense of some of Irimias’s motivations throughout the film, but he is clearly a narcissist and con man and his being squeezed by forced greater than himself is not unexpected. But, this sequence does linger over the next few hours of the film, long enough so that Tarr can slip in deeper themes and character development without hammering them into the viewer. Why? Because, in his use of long shots, extended sequences, and extreme close-ups, there is always the risk of a point being overdone. However, by having the macguffin of Irimias possibly being a piece of governmental subterfuge, the viewer is forced to add layers of cogitation onto things that, if not there, imposed by this section, would reveal the intention of the narrative too plainly. So, Tarr accomplishes using a very light narrative, but making it seem secondary to the macguffinized narrative. This forces the real character development into the subconscious of the viewer, where it can work while the conscious takes its time to figure out the macguffin is what it is, and that a mental sleight of mind has occurred.

  Yet, many critics insist on the fact that Tarr is commenting on the fall of communism. Yet, if one really watches the film, what is onscreen, can one really tell what year the film takes place in? There is likely a three or four decade continuum in which the events may be taking place. After all, we see the decay of only one collective. The governmental power, as seen in the exchanges between Irimias, Petrina, and the government official, give us no political indications, nor do they show governmental power on the wane. The vehicles that are driven, the typewriters that are used, the farming implements, the timeless desolated landscape; all of these could be from any time after the end of the Second World War to after the fall of Communism. There is nothing to indicate time and place, save for one brief mention (in the subtitles) of the nation Hungary. Again, this is in the subtitles, and not every word uttered is translated, so there may be a few other minor mentions of place. However, as far as I can tell, time is left deliberately vague.

  Part Three, Know Something, introduces us to an obese, chain-smoking, and alcoholic doctor (Peter Berling) of the commune. The whole section has us watch him spying on the others, through his window, starting with a binoculars-eye view of Futaki. We see, as example, a replay of a scene from Part One, where Futaki waited behind a barn to see where Schmidt was going to fetch the money, and then confront him. So, now, we are adrift in time. We started at square one, went back in time (?), and now are in the now. Or not? After all, this section picks up midway through Part One, and follows the doctor longer than Futaki and Schmidt will argue over money. So, at its end, we are in the ‘real’ now, or is it the future? The doctor is not only a snoop, but a diarist with scathing opinions of his neighbors, and, as such, reminds one of the Jimmy Stewart character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. When he runs out of fruit brandy, only then does he leave his shanty, to refill his massive demijohn. When his housekeeper (later to be found out as Mrs. Kraner (Irén Szajki)) comes, she is treated shabbily, and his home is in shambles, to the point the viewer can almost feel the cold, filth, alcohol, and cigaret smoke in the air. The doctor wobbles off to the communal barn. In the loft are two young girls that offer him sex for money. The doctor declines and heads out into the woods nearby, where he drunkenly passes out. In the morning, he wakens, stumbles to the local watering hole, and is annoyed by a small child who then runs off into the night.

  Then comes the first of the film’s two Intervals. The second disk starts with Part Four, The Spider’s Function. In it, we see Irimias and Petrina in a café, and then the other townsfolk imbibing at the local pub. We see how they interact with each other as they await the arrival of Irimias and Petrina. This section has the least action, and the most pure character development, in how all the major players deal with each other. Part Five, Comes Unstitched, is the most disturbing part of the film, because it follows a psychopathic little girl named Estike Horgos (Erika Bók). Later in the film we learn some background information about her, such as her being recently released from a mental hospital. The section opens with her being conned out of some money by her older brother Sanyi (András Bodnár). They walk off from their little shack, and, in the nearby woods, they bury her coins in a pouch. Her brother tells her they will water it for some time and a money tree will grow. She heads back to the shack and, presumably, the brother takes her money. Her mother (Ilona Bojár) then berates her as she sits outside the shack, staring straight ahead. Hers is a face right out of a Great Depression era photo album, and the image is one of the more famous from the film. Her mother then scolds her when she tries to enter the home. Many critics claim this is because the mother is a prostitute and entertaining a john at that moment. But, there simply is nothing to support this contention onscreen. Likely this misinterpretation stems from the source novel of the film, by László Krasznahorkai, who has collaborated on many Tarr film projects. But, even if the mother was a prostitute in the novel, that does not mean, lacking any evidence onscreen, that she is a prostitute in the film. This sort of poor criticism should serve as a warning to exegetes of all art forms that criticism must concern itself with the art form, and not details and claims propounded in venues. However, one can see that Estike is deceived by her sibling and neglected by her parent. Plus, she simply has that ‘off’ look in her eyes. Whether this was natural to the child or Tarr had to somehow trick or coax her bearing out of her is no matter. It works superbly. When Estike breaks her long psychotic gaze, she heads to the barn’s loft, where she sees some events going on below her. As she watches, she pets a gray tabby cat. Then, when the cat leaves her lap, she tracks it down in the rafters, and begins wrestling with it. She threatens it, claims her superior strength makes her have dominion over it, and further fights with the animal, which hisses and screams. Naturally, this scene provoked much comment on the part of animal rights activists, but Tarr insisted that the cat was his pet and that a veterinarian was on the set at all times during filming, and that the animal was unharmed. After an extended sequence between Estike and the cat, she ties it up in a fish net and heads to her house. There she mixes some milk with rat poison, returns to the barn, and forces the cat to drink the milk. As the animal eats, it gets more and more sluggish. Estike backs away from what she has done and recedes to the back of the loft as the animal slowly dies. It is at once a sickening and moving scene. Through the rest of the section we see her carrying the stiff, dead cat by her side. She trudges through the rain and mud with it, then ends up, the next morning, outside the local watering hole where she peers in the window and watches many of the locals drunkenly dancing up a storm. When she finishes watching, she runs to the front of the pub, and stops the obese doctor. We are now seeing the same scene we saw when the doctor was the ‘star’ of Part Three. But, after she cause the doctor to trip, she takes off in the night. When morning comes, she is among vacant buildings. She lays down with the dead cat, and then swallows some of the rat poison she gave it herself. She then lays down, clutching the cat cadaver, and the omniscient narrator tells us she feels good as she dies. It is, again, a disturbing but moving scene. Yet, it reveals just how powerful a filmmaker and storyteller Tarr is. Why? Because Estike, despite being a child, is thoroughly vile and unlikable- a true budding psychopath, despite the narrator’s intonations of her imagining she is under an angel’s watch and connected to the rest of the cosmos. We do not have to later learn that she was a mental patient, because we see her psychoses and pathologies in full bloom. Also, after what she does to the cat, the viewer actually loses real interest in her well being, to the point that some may actively be satisfied with her own doom, as a sort of vengeance. But, then the narration comes in, and even the most hardened viewer feels emotion. This is, incidentally, a great example of where the image, alone, would not suffice in eliciting the proper emotion. Thus, the voiceover brings context and the section ends well, and is well used as a technique. Too often, critics of any art form summarily dismiss a technique, regardless of its application’s quality, which is such obvious bias one wonders how anyone with intellect can engage in such.

  The second disk ends with Part Six, The Spider’s Function II, which finds the viewer back inside the bar. It is a literal bookend to Part Four, and further depicts the idiocy of the townsfolk, such as the Schmidts, Futaki, the publican, Kelemen (István Juhász), a drunk who seems afflicted with Tourettes Syndrome, the Halicses (Alfréd Járai and Erzsébet Gaál), Kraner (János Derzsi) and his wife. We see the drunken dance that Estike saw in the prior section, but this time from the inside- the main dancers we follow being Schmidt’s wife and Halics. It goes on for ten minutes, with a slight break, then goes on another ten minutes. In its ineptitude and bizarreness (Schmidt walks about with a cheese roll stuck on his forehead), it reminds one of the dance of ghouls in Herk Harvey’s Carnival Of Souls. The accordion provides excellent folk music, and we even glimpse Estike watching at the window. Again, the viewer has been shuttled back and forth in time. Finally, this section ends with all the revelers passed out and drunk. Then, the narrator’s voice tells us of the spiders in the bar, and we see a few of them descend from their silk threads, and start webbing up things. The second Interval comes and the second disk is done.

  Yet, one simply does not feel tired nor bored by the length of the events witnessed. Tarr has thus achieved something remarkable, crafting his film around and about the literal material functions of the mind. What I mean by that is that, even though four hours of film have already passed, there is not the same tired feeling one gets from a bad Hollywood film just an hour in. Because the takes are so long, when the viewer recalls them, in retrospect, they are naturally compressed, like Zip Files. When a long sequence, such as the opening shots of Parts One or Two, or the Estike-cat fight sequence- is recalled, the mind cuts it to its essentials. Thus, we recapitulate the act of real memory storage. We cut out the real feelings that occur in real time, and store only the essentials. The full seven hours of Satantango, thus, with only 150 or so shots, is recalled like a 70 or 80 minute long film would be. This is, in a sense, a parallel usage of film to trick the mind that French filmmaker Chris Marker used over three decades earlier in his landmark film La Jetee. That science fiction film was filmed (save for a few brief seconds of moving images) with still images only, augmented by a constant voiceover narration. And, whereas Tarr’s film naturally compresses time in recall, via the use of extended takes, Marker’s film uses the brain’s natural impulse to fill in blanks to have his film actually be ‘animated’ in recall, by the viewer. The still shots seem as if they had played out as actual moving sequences in memory. We ‘recall’ the characters ‘doing’ certain things, not merely having them describes to us, just as we naturally edit out 90% of a five minute scene of someone walking because twenty or thirty seconds is more than enough to suffice for the memory to ‘get’ the idea that scene ‘length’ is important here. It simply does not ‘need’ the other extraneous minutes. In this sense, Satantango is obliquely but strongly influenced by Marker’s film, at least in its command of the cogitational techniques of memory. Narrative, thus, while never heavyhanded, is strong in the film, as is, and even stronger in the film as perceived, because the mind and memory distill it.

  This brings the viewer to disk three, and Parts Seven through Twelve, the last almost three hours of the film. Part Seven is Irimias Gives A Speech. It’s the shortest section in the film (only thirteen minutes), and thankfully so. Irimias is standing, outside the pub, as Estike’s body has been found, and is both preaching platitudes and berating the others for letting her death occur. He is obviously a skilled con man for we know he doesn’t give a damn about the little girl, but is simply using her death to aid in his plan to pilfer the others of their hard earned money. We still do not know why Irimias ever left the commune, or what his relationship with Petrina is, but this section reinforces the fact that he has taken on Christ-like import to the others, even as they deny this to themselves. It ends with the group dispersing, cursing each other, having gotten instructions from Irimias. Part Eight is Perspective From The Front. Here we see some key elements that thicken the narrative of the film. We see Irimias has apparently had sex with Mrs. Schmidt, although she is likely two decades his senior. We now get the background information regarding Estike’s mental condition, and then we see the group of people preparing to leave the collective. They destroy furniture in an extended sequence, and the humor of their ineptness is only surpassed by their rage at the world- over Strike, over Irimias, over the general pall of their beings. They eventually arrive at an abandoned mansion where they spend the night, per Irimias’s instructions, waiting for him to come the next morning to reveal more of his plan to ‘help’ them.

  Part Nine is Go To Heaven? Have Nightmares? This section picks up from the end of Irimias’s speech, but from the perspective of Irimias and Petrina. We follow them to a nearby town, accompanied by a young man who is Estike’s brother, Sanyi (although the two older men refer to him by his surname, Horgos. We then see a bit of the relationship between the two con men and the boy play out, we hear snippets of what seems to be Irimias’s grand delusion, as he is preparing to meet, then meets, a man who seems to have connections to arms dealers. Is Irimias a revolutionary? Is his plan to bilk the collective suckers out of their money related to this? Likely not, as the film never picks up on this. Irimias is clearly a narcissist and seems to get joy merely out of playing other people off each other, just to play them off each other- i.e.- to show he has ‘power’ over things. Part Ten, Perspective From The Rear, bookends Part Eight, and we are back at the abandoned manse where the villagers are bickering. Some feel Irimias is a con artist, and will not show. They argue, but then Irimias shows up and berates them. This reinstills the belief in him in some, but Kraner wants his money back. Irimias baits him, offers him his money, but then says this cuts him out of Irimias’s grand plans. The others convince him to rejoin and ‘reluctantly,’ Irimias ‘forgives’ Kraner. If there was any doubt about the malign nature of Irimias before this scene, there is none after it. Irimias, despite having less screen time than five or six of the other characters, is clearly the lynchpin of the film. He is also a thoroughly amoral (if not immoral) character.

  And, if one doubt’s that last sentence’s claim, one merely need watch the next section  of the film, Part Eleven, Just Trouble And Work. This is the second shortest section of the film, at only sixteen minutes, but also the funniest, as it reveals Irimias’s true feelings about the people he is conning. We see two government apparatchiks being forced to type Irimias’s ‘report’ to the official we saw in Part Two. Irimias’s assessment of each is scathing. He clearly loathes each of the villagers, and thinks they are fools, obese pigs, and reprobates. The only one he has even a grudging respect for is Futaki, whom he classes as having a bit more about him than the others, and possibly being ‘dangerous.’ Yet, why Futaki is dangerous, really or possibly, is never elaborated upon. Still, we know Irimias’s report is on the mark, because we have just seen him gull his victims of their money and disperse them throughout Hungary, to await further instructions- for what end we are never told, as, in reality, there is no end. It’s a shell game that the con man has won. Why there is a report on these pathetic people is never explained, and why or how Irimias and Petrina got co-opted by them can only be guessed at. In real time, we see the two apparatchiks squabble with each other as they try to ‘clean up’ Irimias’s assessments for an ‘official’ report. To whom? This is never made clear. Why? Again, we never know, so, in effect, we get, in this second to last section, as we did in the second section, the return of the macguffin, and all its effects on narrative and the expectations of narrative that derive from its essence and presence. The best part of the scene, however, is when the two apparatchiks take a snack break, and the camera never leaves them, in real time. The only way to have improved on this gem of a section would have been to follow one of the apparatchiks into the bathroom as they relieved themselves.

  The final section of the film, Part Twelve, No Way Out, returns to the obese doctor. As in our first encounter with him, we see him, now with a full jug of brandy, imbibing and sinking more slowly into depression as he realizes he has been left behind at the collective. As in the film’s opening sequence, we hear a return of the thrumming and gonging bells. The doctor walks far to see where the sounds are coming from, only to discover the ruins of a chapel where a madman is ringing bells (which are NOT the bells the doctor is actually hearing) and declaiming that, ‘The Turks are coming!’ The doctor returns to his home and slowly boards up his front window, for he has nothing left to inspire even curiosity. When the last board is nailed into place, the screen is dark and the film is over. In a sense, it’s an almost inverse of the opening scene of John Ford’s The Searchers. That films starts off black, then opens up to daylight as a door swings open on the wild west, in full color. That film starts with optimism, whereas this film ends with pessimism, in black and white, and then utter blackness. Only the sounds of the gongs and bells that open the film are left. Thus, the film ends much as it began, in mystery, yet also complacency. As the macguffins all fall- the last being the source of the bell ringing that affected many of the characters, yet we know that the bells the madman rung were not those the film implies unsettled others, the viewer comes to the realization that not only does the film occur in real time, over vast portions of its playing out, but it incorporates much of real life’s little mysteries, and leaves them unresolved. What really was wrong with suicidal Estike? Why is Irimias a con man, and why was he intent on gulling such simpletons? Why was the government concerned with the collective’s group of morons? What was Irimias’s need to see an arms dealer? Was he involved in a plot to steal the collective’s land to sell to developers? Or the government? And, is there really any deeper meaning to the plight of the gulled? I don’t think so. Yes, one can see parallels between Irimias and other savior figures, and there are moments that brim with Orwellian irony. But, in the main, the film, stylized as it is, does a good job of representing just how dumb and venal most human beings are. But, aside from its technical pluses, on a purely narrative level, one of the film’s great successes is that it does not go in for the easy condemnation and moralizing that bad works of art indulge in. In this sense, the tone of the film reminds me very much of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages Of Fear, of which I wrote, ‘Yet, what raises the film into the high art category is its blunt, simple, but never ham-handed, portrayal of the evils of corporate greed, and the sacrifice of human life so a select few can get rich, as well as the nihilistic despair that drives those who willingly play into their exploiters’ hands. As rough as Clouzot is on the exploiters, he’s even harsher on the meekly hypocritical exploited.’ The same is true in Satantango, for while there is little doubt how negatively Tarr (or, rather, the film) feels about the cynical and amoral Irimias, the pusillanimous Petrina, and the egotistical governmental apparatchiks, the film truly despises the idiotic and bumbling villagers that enable people like Irimias to exist and prosper, to the detriment of society.

  Many critics have likened the film to a dance tango (hence its name), in that six of its sections go forward in time and six backward. But, this is simply not true. No time flows backwards, and the sections begin at differing points in space and time, but all flow forward. I will not pretend to have any expertise on dance movements, but even the backward and forward trope that many critics describe is inadequate, for the film follows narratives in an oblique manner, as well, much in the way that films like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, among others, have used similar overlapping time sequences, but in a far more limited and less effective manner. The film that really has the strongest structural resemblance to Satantango is Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, with its replay of scenes but not only from differing points of view, but with differing claims of what occurred. The difference is that in the Kurosawa film we do not see things from an objective perspective, but only the subjective perspectives of the characters. In the Tarr film we see what objectively happens, but witness how the characters willfully interpret and misinterpret events to suit their ends. That stated, I’m not saying that the idea of a tango has no import in the narrative design of the film, but the film’s power comes from its use of narrative, as described above, and that narrative structure often seems to resemble a symphony, where themes rise from below another, overtake the prior theme (or symbol or metaphor) in import, then somehow merge with it, then sometimes part, as yet another theme, symbol, or metaphor arises to start a new portion of the filmic song.

  On that note, it’s worth stating that Tarr has constructed one of the best soundtracks in film history, even though non-natural sounds comprise only a fraction of the film’s length. Much of the sound of the film, structured by Mihály Vig (who plays Irimias), comes from the banalities of everyday life- what might be termed the infraordinary, like coins against wood, the tick of clocks, farts, the pop of wine corks, the hiss of raindrops, the sounds of animals, the buzz of flies about carrion, the squeak of doors and gates, etc. This, plus the focus on small visuals, makes Satantango a film of visual import on a par with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. The heightened focus on small things makes every shot, every blink of an eye, every cough, seem to take on a greater import. And, even if it does not, within the film, the fact that the viewer gets this sense, makes the experience of the whole film something more than watching an ordinary film. It’s as if the film changes or acclimates the viewer to suit its purposes. As example, many of the extended shots get the viewer or empathize, not just sympathize with the character it is focused on- such as when Estike is glaring blankly ahead, at the camera, for minute son end, or the doctor can barely stay awake while spying on his neighbors. Yet, in other sequences, the camera turns away from its putative focus. This happens several times in the film, during extended sequences, but the first time is in the first long scene, where the camera is putatively following the motions of a herd of cows as they exit a barn. The camera starts and ends on the cows, but during the course of its pan it has other things that crop up into view- such as dilapidated buildings, rusting artifacts, and other things that give the mise-en-scene of the film an anchor that stays with the viewer throughout the film. Then, when it eventually is freed, in its line of sight, to rejoin the herd, there is a naturalness to the whole feeling, like we’ve been on a grand tour of some fabulous place when, in reality, we’ve had a tour or a dull, ugly, impoverished, monochromatic, and sodden bog.

  But, the ‘turn away,’ so to speak, of the tracking shots, is not the only turn from what seems to be a major point of the film. Often, there are turns away from what seems to be the main narrative thrust- Irimias’s scheme. The two best examples of this are the first sequence with the doctor, and the Estike sequence. Neither sequence really does much, in a traditional narrative sense, to advance the film, but both are vitally important in that Whitmanian sense of adding far more to the film than the extra running time detracts from it; its flaws transmuting into graces simultaneously. Why? Because both of these characters are outsiders to the main cast of characters, even though both serve as voyeurs and surrogates for the viewer. Estike ends up literally killing herself while the doctor’s abandonment of the outside world is a de facto entombing of his own person. Of the two characters, though, the doctor is the most important, and while Irimias is the lynchpin of the narrative side of the film, the doctor is equally important as a sort of id-like presence in the film. Despite his presumed education and intellect, he is little more than an immense, grunting old bag of emotions and desires. Yet, just as he is linked to Estike as an outsider, he is linked to Irimias as someone who disdains most of the characters in the film. As Irimias reveals his contempt for all the other characters in his report to the government, so too do we hear echoes of the same sentiments in the doctor’s own diary entries. It is also interesting that, of all the characters, only the doctor and Irimias have the intellect and desire to make their observations have permanence- they are the only two writers in the cast of characters. That stated, while it is an interesting fact, it is one of those facts that, too often, gets twisted out of proportion in critical theses. While something may be true, that fact does not mean that it is necessarily deep, and critics often read FAR too much into such filigrees and fortuities, the byproducts of creation that artists understand comes to them, often in synchronicities, not design. That’s not to say that Tarr did not intend the connections between the characters of Irimias, the doctor, and Estike, simply that those connections are not a Rosetta Stone to the film, for that would necessitate Satantango’s being far too simplistic a film to be great.

  I’ve mentioned other films that Satantango drew from, but two deserve special mention because they are from the filmmaker Tarr is most compared to, Andrei Tarkovsky. Those films would be Stalker and The Sacrifice. Both are concerned with dreamy apocalyptic settings, and both have prefigurations of the narrative techniques used by Tarr in this film. And, despite my claims for this film’s greatness and import as a possible landmark that will change cinema in this century, it is not a perfect film. There are some demonstrably bad moments in the film- some times the shots, indeed, do go on far too long, and serve no purpose. Sometimes there are moments of visual indulgence that do not serve the plot, the characterization, nor any other aspect of the film. But, as in the poetry of the Good Gray Poet, if one shortened the majority of scenes, one would lose the overall pacing, and that would disrupt the mood of the viewer, especially in key scenes like those involving the doctor, Estike and the cat, and a few others. Furthermore, those lengthy excesses, if all trimmed, would inevitably hamper the sketching and development of character. I’ve mentioned how Estike’s character is imparted via several techniques, but the same could be said for the voyeuristic doctor, and the monomaniacal gaze of Irimias. So, while a shorter version of the film would definitely gain some benefits, it would lose some others, and those lost would likely be far greater losses than the gains incurred. Aside from making Satantango an essentially different film in pace and tone and style, it would also irrevocably affect the narrative because, in this case, the style (especially the length and focus) is part of the substance, and in this substance lies the roots of a newer and better cinema for this century. Satantango represents not a post-narrative cinema, much less a non-narrative one, rather a simply different narrative form, one in which not much occurs, in terms of traditional action, but where the depth of exploration of actions is nonpareil.

  Critics are often the worst judges of what is original and important when an art form seeks out new means- an online scan of film reviews of old classics often shows how off the mark old line critics were. On a soft tangent, an often abused term crops up far too often in reviews of Satantango, and that is the word ‘epic.’ In fact, epic is something this film most definitely is not. Epic implies huge spectacle and grand consequences, whereas this film, despite its length, is anything but that. It is intimate and, if anything, anti-epical. In fact, it is almost like a Beckett play on steroids, and one that tests the very premises Beckett based his whole career upon, pushing them to the very limits of their own dictates, and then into something even better, for it has a richness, depth, and humanity that no Beckett play has. Yet, while not epic, the film is very much a visionary work. Many people confuse the two ideals, as if they both connote a grandness, whereas only epic does. Vision, on the other hand, can be small. Quality of her verse aside, much can be stated in favor of the argument that Emily Dickinson was a visionary poet. Her ‘vision,’ though, was exceedingly small, and this is true of Satantango. The very smallness which makes it an anti-epic also makes it visionary for its vision is that of the microscope, not the telescope, where epics are writ so large. But large things often diffuse, whereas Satantango’s length does naught but clarify, even in its depths. And the use of macguffins acts almost as leukocytes to defend the film’s narrative from its own length’s possible excesses.This defense system is one of the many reasons Satantango is not only a great film, but an important and historic one.

  I generally detest quotations for their usual pedantry, and inappropriate application, but let me quote from Robert Browning’s Andrea Del Sarto, for the quote so fully sums up this film:

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?

  But I won’t end with that often misused and abused portion of the poem, for while that partly describes Bela Tarr’s film, its essence is contained in the anticlimax of that oft-quoted portion of the poem:

                                       All is silver-grey,
Placid and perfect with my art: the worse!
I know both what I want and what might gain,
And yet how profitless to know, to sigh….

  This part of the quote sums up the plights of the poor villagers who are duped, Irimias the con man, Tarr the filmmaker, and even that of all the viewers, because what we seemingly lack in profit from the knowledge of the tale’s inevitability, in recollection, we gain from the silver-grey, placid perfection of its innovative art, and that’s why Satantango’s bells sigh. And, in this instance, sighing can be quite a bit more of a horror than tolling for you.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Culture Vulture website.]


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