***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.***
An over 9-minute long, single take of a herd of cattle coming out from some dilapidated structures on to the boggy grounds of a rain-soaked rural Hungarian farm land, kicks off Bela Tarr's magnanimous, magnificent cinematic giant, "Sátántangó" (1994).
The cows and bulls moo away as some distant bell gongs and a faint, unsettling rumble fills the air. The cattle look around, confused, stand scattered, look for food, try to screw each other, and then walk along as a united herd in one direction. They are an aimless slothful lot, just going with the flow. This 9-minute long sequence pretty much sums up the condition of the grubby, miserable characters and their existence that "Sátántangó" delves upon and the course of the story that is to unfold in the rest of the 7-hour duration of this big mammoth of a film.
Divided into 12 chapters, (6 forward moves + 6 backward moves = the Tango structure, get it?), Sátántangó tells the story set in a small rural farmland after the fall of communism. The farm has failed and the peasants are struggling to earn a livelihood. With some money leftover, possibly received from the government owing to their shut-down, the primary characters, including three couples plan to scoot to some other location where they can start life afresh. Alas, some scheming individuals have secret plans of making away with all of the loot and not sharing the treasure with the others. But then, bell gongs are heard, the otherworldly kind. The nearest chapel doesn't have a bell tower anymore. So where is the bell sounding from? Well..."The News is They are coming".
Two dreaded individuals Irimias (Mihály Vig) and Petrina (Putyi Horváth) have been seen alive, rumour goes! They were presumed dead, but now they are back, possibly to stake their claim in the farm land, or take away what belongs to the peasants. Deemed dangerous, there is a sudden chaos in the scheme of things as these ordinary individuals become increasingly fearful at this unexpected turn of events. Frustrations follow, a tense atmosphere, fear of being robbed (again?), not wanting to part with what is theirs, not able to believe the rumours, the peasants decide to execute their plan of fleeing anyway. Meanwhile, a portly, alcoholic, lonesome Doctor (Peter Berling), a part of this doomed universe, sits in his ramshackle room, spies on his neighbours (these very other individuals), sips his fruit brandy, grumbles and grunts like a pig and takes down notes in journals named for each of the characters! Is he the one writing their story? Or just observing?
Quite a few things happen. A single incident is told from different vantage points. Occurrences in the lives of several people in the same time instance are related. Disparate chapters of the film could in fact serve as separate stories. Time folds back and there are temporal overlaps. Over the sprawling length, there is a very grim story being told. The mortal humans and their natural reactions to the quagmire they have landed themselves in, their desperation owing to their predicament, their vulnerability, their ill-feelings for each other, are all one would come to expect, given their plight. So where does Irimias fit in?
He is the spider who weaves an invisible web that binds them together. It is easy for a spider to target something that does not move. Lazy, meaningless lives such as those of our characters are effortless targets for the likes of Irimias to cast their deadly webs of deceit! Irimias is a certified outlaw, but seems to be a messiah-like cult figure; the mystical character, who stands tall amidst all the mere mortals. A persona that almost looks like Jesus Christ. God? Satan? Who knows! But he has a charisma about him.
In a fantastic , surreal scene in a pub, when he says "Quiet", literally everything comes to standstill for a few seconds. We almost think Tarr has employed the freeze frame here, until one character moves slightly! Irimias has established his presence. He is a smooth-talking manipulator, probably a con-man who is capable of fleecing people and has done so before, and therefore they fear him. But he also has this extraordinary convincing power, that people can't help but listen to him. The peasants fear Irimias, but they can't do without him either. He is their support system. Much like God!
An incident of a little girl, Estike (Erika Bók, who also appears as an adult actress in "The Man from London" (2007) and "The Turin Horse" (2011)) and her cat sets things in motion. Irimias manipulates the situation. The ambiguous nature of Irimias is the main pulse of the film. Behold how Irimias is transfixed and falls to his knees as he approaches some ruins shrouded by fog, where Estike's body had been found. But it isn't certain if Irimias is aware of the location of her death! So what makes him kneel? Petrina laughs it off "What? You never seen fog before?" Could Irimias be an all-powerful being who senses the importance of that place?
Irimias has a masterplan. He promises to take the peasants elsewhere, where they can all start afresh. One begins to wonder if it is anti-Christian symbolism, what with a Christ-like figure leading a group like a pack of sheep with assurances of a "promised land". But in reality, this very Christ-like figure is an criminal, possibly planning a terrorist attack! Is it really a moral act of salvation? Or a trap that the peasants can't see?
There is a lot to admire and embrace here. Tarr's film is all about how authority is exercised. It is all about control and power. The Doctor could very well be a puppet-master, controlling events from within his miserable abode. Irimias is exercising his manipulative control over the peasants. Mrs. Schmidt (Éva Almássy Albert) is controlling and manipulating the menfolk with her immoral sexuality. Estike exercises control over her hapless cat! Animal rights activists may bay for Tarr's blood, for an entire half hour sequence is dedicated to how Estike tortures and poisons her cat! One might question the cinematic liberty taken by Tarr. This reviewer had the same doubt, but Tarr claims that a Vet was present all the time during shooting of that scene! So he isn't really denying that the cat was not harmed..!
Nonetheless, art-house aficionados have plenty to lap up from this monumental labour of love that Tarr has built over a troublesome process of four years! A realistically acted, well photographed film that one must dedicate his entire day to. Not so much the plot, but the story-telling, narrative structure, the themes, the characterization and the dark humour are the highlights. A lot has been said about Tarr's visual style which is not new to anyone who has seen Tarr's other work.
The bleak black and white cinematography, melancholic score, long, slow-burning, uninterrupted takes, mesmerizing visuals, meticulous sound design (amidst silence, you can hear people pouring and gulping their drinks down!), use of apocalyptic, rain-soaked grim locales that give off an eerie, deserted feel, almost makes you feel like it is the end of the world as the camera pans through those landscapes! No one can capture dilapidation, bleakness and desolation quite like Bela Tarr. A visual style of filming people from behind as they walk on and the camera walks with them is signature Tarr by now, as there are entire shots dedicated to people walking along endlessly, like nomads, on streets and marsh-lands, getting wet, with no umbrellas, only trench-coats, and nary a vehicle to be seen around!
Tarr's filmmaking technique is flawless, and his hypnotic storytelling style with each chapter closing with a deep baritone-voiced poetic narration (by Mihály Ráday) summing up the story by putting out a conclusion, leaves a lasting effect. The length of the film and the amount of time we spend with them in our "Sátántango" experience makes us one with these characters. We become observers, much like the Doctor! We practically live their lives and it is difficult to shake off that effect long after the film has ended.
Only one wishes Tarr had gone easy on the desire to make the film a 7-hour long epic! With all due respect to Tarr, the same story could've been told in a length little under 5 hours. Long takes are very much welcome, so is meditative pacing, more so when they are done signature Tarr style and showcase haunting audiovisuals, like in the case of "The Turin Horse" (2011) or "Werckmeister Harmonies" (2000). But there is such a thing as being too glacial when it comes to the pacing!
Certain sequences in "Sátántango" did seem to overstay their welcome, with a drunken bar dance sequence stretching to over 11 minutes and the torture and killing of the cat which takes place in some ruined claustrophobic interiors (no good atmospherics) stretches to more than 30 minutes! Like in one scene, a drunk conductor Kelemen (István Juhász) keeps rambling and says, "I went plodding and plodding and plodding....", and it goes on, to no end! Let alone the pace, the cat torture is a somewhat painful sequence to watch too, given its realism! There are other instances as well, where a little cutting down could have made "Sátántango" far more accessible in terms of viewership like his other two masterworks mentioned above.
Nevertheless, "Sátántango" remains a unique piece of cinema, one that is an unforgettable experience and a towering achievement for Bela Tarr, the under-acknowledged visionary, the brave auteur and risk-taker. You are warned about the length...and the pace. Venture if you dare. And if you do, take minimal breaks to fully tap its absorbing power.