SFF Review: Satantango
By Matilda Alex-Sanders
Being at Circular Quay on a fresh, bright morning, only to enter the bunker ambience of the cinema did at first feel questionable - the movie in question being the Hungarian art house classic Satantango. Directed by Bela Tarr. released in 1994 and running over 7 hours, it is probably one of the most revered and feared films out there – widely considered one of the best films ever made, one the highest rated films on Mubi (the film nerd’s Rotten Tomatoes). It is the film to make the most hardened film critic froth with excitement.
I will admit with absolute sincerity that a motivating reason for seeing this was for the clout; Satantango for movie buffs is a rite of passage - you’ve either seen it or you haven’t. I’d been meaning to watch it for several years now, but even my slack, procrastinating self knew that watching it on a television or laptop wouldn’t do this monster justice. That length did put me off. I can sit still for long periods of time, but when watching something of a much kinder runtime like Lawrence of Arabia, or The Tree of Wooden Clogs, I’m still apt to get restless. Even with the aide of caffeine, how was I going to keep completely alert for a mind and arse numbing 7 plus hours? Thankfully there were two intermissions (in direct opposition to Tarr’s wishes for how his film ought to shown.) It is true also that my mind did wander at certain points (…wow I’m hungry…I hope I used enough deodorant...this aircon is strong…I’m cold…now I’m hot...what would Hungarian people think of this film?)
Cinephilia can often be a solitary hobby, especially when its a passion not shared by friends or family. The wide spread aversion of going to the cinema on your lonesome has to be conquered early on. This is entirely understandable though. Even you cannot always seduce people with the promise of a gem from somewhere like Venezuela or Ethiopia, which you swear is destined to be a classic ‘in 10 to 15 year’s time!’
Satantango is of course a famous example of the ‘slow cinema’ trend. Perhaps such cultural artefacts are necessary in these overly switched on, hornet’s nest times. There are much longer films out there, like the epics by Filipino auteur Lav Diaz, the Holocaust documentary Shoah, or certain works by Andy Warhol, such as Eat, Sleep, Empire or 4 Stars. Warhol famously claimed that his ideal film was one where you could duck out for a cup of coffee, and come back to find nothing had changed – film as wallpaper. Such exceptionally long works are rarely seen in a cinematic setting, but belong more in the realm of art installation. Currently the longest film in existence is the 2012 Logistics, which runs for over 35 days.
I surveyed the audience before the room dimmed. The turn out was exceptionally good – a healthy demographic mix of young and old. The younger in the crowd tended towards being scruffy, bearded, male. I am still trying to figure out why cinephilia is such a male dominated interest, since most people regardless of gender watch movies for leisure. Speaking through experience, serious cinephile culture does attract many of the dreaded “uhh actually” neckbeard archetype, and I’ve been mansplained to far too many times on why someone like Terrence Malick is the greatest director alive - or ever.
So, finally! What is this feted thing about? Satantango concerns a small farming community in the middle of nowhere. Communist rule is tapering out, and the inhabitants are awaiting the appearance of a young man who promises them a better life. Is he the Messiah, or a fake prophet? The only catch is that the townsfolk have to give him all of their money. In the meantime, we the audience are privy to their bleak and largely pointless lives, which mostly consists of walking (always walking, walking!) drinking and brooding.
We see cows wander out of a barn for almost 10 minutes; a pig snuffling around. The doctor spies on his neighbours while muttering to himself; a very drunk set of people dance joylessly to the same accordion refrain, played over and over (and over) again. There’s a disturbed little girl who meets an unfortunate end. Her scenes include prolonged (and thankfully fake) instances of cat torture, which will be distressing for some viewers (I should note that the cat, like the rest of the cast, was an exceptional actor). In a dark cinema setting, one does not so much watch this film, but become enveloped in it. Viewing it as it had been intended becomes an almost tactile experience. The unhurried and grimly beautiful shots look like paintings that have had life breathed into them; the sound design is made up of the constant hiss of wind, lashings of rain, faraway church bells, the indelible squelch of mud underfoot. Close ups of the character’s bodies convey more than the dialogue ever could. These people are worn and permanently tired, with faces etched and puckered by a lifetime of disappointment, bitter cold, cigarettes and too much plum brandy.
Based on a novel by the same name, the film remains faithful to its precursor by being divided up into chapters. The Satan’s tango of the title – six steps forward, six steps back - is enacted literally. We see certain key scenes repeated, always shown from another perspective. I’m still in awe of the seamless tracking shots (how on earth did Tarr get his cinematographer to create such perfectly choreographed scenes? Were the endless outside walking shots aided by a dolly?) While the film would be set in 1989 or thereabouts, and has a few incidental clues such as clothing or a lone car, it has a primordial feel to it. It could easily be set hundreds of years ago. Visually, it could belong to the same filmic universe as Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, which is set in the 1400s. Those expecting to see a terse indictment about living under the privations of communism will be a bit disappointed. Despite all of the dark trappings, Satantango is a very droll observational comedy, an in-depth exploration of how pernicious moral decrepitude and lack of opportunity can be. Because of the amount of time one spends with the characters, you instantly feel a kind of rapport with them, charmless and venal as they often are.
I left the cinema feeling dazed. Oddly enough, a film like Satantango felt almost…affirming? It is certainly a fulfilling experience, and you do feel like you’ve actually accomplished something. After sitting through scenes of blighted landscapes and those mean spirited, dingy rooms, my mind felt positively refreshed, as if it had been doused with iced water. Was seeing Satantango the closest my stout, agnostic soul would ever come to a state of grace? Possibly. I do know that any movie seen afterwards is doomed to feel slight and insubstantial in comparison. So, if you’re feeling game, referential, or even just curious, see this film, and gain some much needed bragging rights. For once, the hype is true and warranted.