Monday, June 30, 2014

Satantango

Satantango; drama/ experimental film, Hungary/ Germany/ Switzerland, 1994; D: Bella Tarr, S: Mihály Víg, Putyi Horváth, László Lugossy, Éva Almássy Albert, János Derzsi, Miklós Székely

A Hungarian village towards the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. The lives of the inhabitants are bleak, and it is raining almost every day. After having an affair with Mrs. Schmidt, Futaki overhears a conversation between her and Mr. Schmidt, who plans to take this year's earning and leave the village. Irimias and Petrina are summoned by a government officer and receive a secret assignment from him. Afterwards, they return to the village, where they cause surprise, since many thought Irimias was dead. Using the death of a little girl, Estike, as a pretext, he persuades the people to hand over all their money to him because he will lead them to a new place, into a better life. The inhabitants listen and move, but find themselves in another village where everything is the same. In the office, two officers read a report by Irimias about the people.

Bela Tarr's "Satantango" has quite a polarizing effect: some consider it one of the best movies from the 90s, while others denounce it as tedious and pointless. The truth is somewhere in between. The movie starts out with a great, 7-minute long scene shot in one take, in which a bunch of cows are running through a village. One marvels how Tarr managed to film such a long scene, but right after it, there is another 7-minute long scene. And another. And another... Until it turns out that the whole film is assembled almost exclusively from long takes, which, no matter how virtuoso they are, becomes repetitive and monotone after a while. Something is precious only when it is rare. By relaying too much on this overindulgence with long takes, Tarr placed only them as the highlight, on the expense of a (richer) use of movie language. The second problem is that these long takes do not tell some especially great story, either: "Satantango" is a 2-hour story trapped in a 7-hour movie, which is further aggravated by a vague ending without a real conclusion. It is not so exciting to watch the movie linger with such sequences where a drunk, overweight doctor is sitting in his house and drinking for 40 minutes, where the main highlight is when he trips and falls to the floor.

The best parts of the film are the three humorous moments that "twitch" the events from their 'grey' existence: one is the quietly hilarious dance in the tavern, where one character, Schmidt, is trying to balance a bun on his forehead, and walks from left to right, between the people dancing around him. The other is Irimias' report to two KGB-like officers, who are typically loyal to the regime, but stupid: Irimias describes the backward peasants in such a straightforward way that the two officers have to use various euphemisms while typing an official report to their superiors, which results in comical dialogues ("Instead of a 'fat sow', write 'big'". - "Overweight?" - "Okay" / "Hopeless stupidity, inarticulate moaning, desperate existence...?" - "OK, write this: his dwarfed understanding and his submissive attitude to authority make him a good candidate to accomplish the activity in question..."). The storyline is considered an allegory on the collapse of the (Soviet) Eastern Bloc, with a metaphysical touch: the main protagonist, Irimias, has a beard and an almost Christ like appearance (he shows up in the village after many though he was dead; he promises people salvation and a better place; he gathers followers). These are plus points, yet if there was ever a movie suited for a "fast forward" button, it was this one.

Grade;++

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