Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 19 January 2006
Source 35mm print
Reviews: Werckmeister Harmonies
Reviews Satantango by Ian
Time is the most prudently meted aspect of life, and to devote it to film is a unique permission because the experience imposes few stipulations other than a viewer’s patience. This thought is exemplified in Béla Tarr’s morbid, colossal masterpiece. Composed chiefly of orchestrated long takes, the experience asks several hours. Mention of its length is inevitable, and fosters intimidation. It is not only substantiated, but necessary as it elicits the viewer’s fatigue, an analogue between she and those whose hardship is the subject of the film.
My first exposure to the film came in four video cassettes, watched over a series of evenings—itself a viewing that required some persistence. But to see this film in a theater and without interruption (save for a pair of fifteen-minute intermissions) is both overwhelming and exhaustive, necessarily so. It isolates a group of desperate villagers who inhabit a perpetually frigid, rain-soaked farm, whose deceit impedes one another, and whose individual toils are shared by the whole. (The third episode finds an aging, unhealthy doctor on an errand to replenish his supply of brandy; he fails, in but one of the film’s incessant demonstrations of futility.) The film’s centerpiece finds the collective at a rural pub, drunk and in the middle of the night, either dancing or chanting as an accordion produces a redundant, cherubic melody. This scene has a duration of nearly a half hour. The composition remains static, and the redundancy of virtually everything therein becomes increasingly hypnotic. In this scene, the viewer is implicated as a participant in this night of restless binging. Invariably, you depart the scene dazed.
Later we find the group, at the same location, scattered and asleep about the room. The accordionist gently awakes, cautiously encircles the room, finishes the party’s drinks, and promptly vomits off-screen. A close up isolates a spider, and a voice-over tells us the entire room - people and all - will be wound in the insects’ web, captured in Sátántangó’s vital image of pity. This has not been, however, the consequence of desperation, but of celebration, as it precedes the farmers’ exodus (the group has compiled their modest earnings in an effort to initiate another, presumably more profitable farm elsewhere). As the room is enfolded in spiders’ webs, you suspect this celebration is not without some haste.
The viewer shares this deprivation, not least for the time required to view the film. Sátántangó is structured in twelve chapters, many of which overlap others, displaying a single action from varying perspectives. The film’s inhabitants are a specious, desperate group, and the structure promotes the viewer’s omniscience. Every deceit and every violence is made apparent, but it is a general air of grimness that is most informative of the naivety of hope in this environment.
Without hope, however, Sátántangó is with neither redemption nor suspense. This is not to say the cycle of deceit culminates in epiphany (contrarily, its final image is one of absolute cynicism); the possibility of redemption - of being cleansed of one’s hardships - motivates those in the film, although their strife employs sin. The structure ensures clarity; this potential for redemption is crucially apparent, but impossible.
Despite its length, the film begins abruptly and stops short of a conventionally concluding gesture, but crucial in the responses it elicits is the viewer’s freedom. The final credits fade in, and you exit with a familiarity of the hardships of those inside—and unlike them, you are freed.