Sátántangó (1991/3) ***** Curzon World

May 1st, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Bela Tarr; Cast: Mihaly Vig, Istvan Horvath, Erika Bök, Peter Berling, Miklos B. Szekely, Laszlo Fe Lugossy, Eva Almassi Albert, Alfred Jaray, Erzsebet Gaal, Janos Derzsi, Iren Szajki; Hungary/Germany/Switzerland 1991/93, 450′.

Based on the novel 1985 by co-writer Laszlo Krasnahorkai, Bela Tarr’s collaborator in his last five feature films, Sátántangó is a human tragedy that deals with time, memory and melancholy as it delves into the final years of Communism in a Hungarian village, where everyone contributes to the community’s demise.

Shot in long tracking shots, the opening sequence, an eight minute take of cows on the yard of a decaying estate, is symbolic for what is to follow. Told in two parts with six episodes each, Santantango uses the tango steps for the retrogressive dance sequences. Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard clearly spring to mind in comparison, but Tarr/Krasmahorkai add an extra dimension of absolute stasis, that contrasts with the characters’ overriding desire to escape their fate from the outset.

The story begins in 1990s Hungary where life has come to a standstill for a group of farmers waiting for the cast to roll in after their collective farm is closed. Their plan is to escape the land to emigrate to a new location. But socially things are looking bleak: Futaki (Szekely) is having an affair with Mrs. Schmidt (Albert); Mr. Schmidt (Lugossy) is trying to steal the money the villagers have set aside for their escape. Futaki demands to be part of the scheme. All this goes on under the beady eye of drunk Doctor (Berling), who is the chronicler of events.

However, the master plan is abandoned when the villagers discover that the manipulative Irimias (Vig) and his co-conspirator Petrina (Horvath) have returned. The two have struck a deal with the police captain to spy on the villagers. The doctor has run out of brandy, and after replenishing his supplies, he meets the young Estike (Bök), who asks him desperately for help. But the doctor passes out in the wood. The morning before, Estika had been tricked into plant a ‘money tree’ by her brother in the nearby wasteland. Estike tortures and poisons her cat, to show that she has some form of control of her life, but she soon loses the plot, like many others who are seen dancing in the pub. . Estike is overcome by grief for her cruelty to the cat, she later asks the doctor to save her pet, but this strand ends in tragedy. Irimias convinces the villagers to hand over the escape money, he tells them, the venture is being postponed, until a new venue can be found for their future, adivinsing them to wander off into the countryside until further notice. But he has another dastardly plot up his sleeve. And the story ends with the doctor returning to the abandoned farm, unaware he is alone. When he hears the church bells and a madman shouting: “the Turks are arriving”, the doctor nails his windows shut and starts to chronicle the narration from its beginning.

Gabor Medvigy’s intimate camera shows no mercy: encircling the characters with long panning shots and cold-blooded close-ups, leaving nothing to the imagination. They cannot escape. The more one shows in a film, the less we see from the world – and we have to watch more and more films, until we are bewildered. One film would be enough, one, in which nothing much happens, but we can watch it again and again, until we decide what is really important. There are three worlds to escape into: the one of beauty, the ugly one and the empty one. Beauty belongs to the film world of Tarkovsky, the meditation on the void is Ozu’s cinema, and the early works of Antonioni. Dedicating a whole day to  watch Satantango is a day experiencing in a world of visual wonder. Tarr’s film is not so extensive there is so much to tell, but because there is so much to understand. At one time, Neo-Realism revolutionised the world of cinema, by allowing the audience to participate, and take part in the composition. Neo-Realism is only effective if the audience can watch the film from the inside. If today’s films want to be meaningful, rather than degenerating into attention-grabbing digital trickery, we need a narrative revolution. Contemporary film has to fight the tendency to split time into sequences, and submit to the powerlessness of spontaneity. Satantango offers us the chance to submit to the entirety of world at the film’s core  – to immerse ourselves in a point in time, and take part in a story. Instant gratification is today’s modern malaise and symptomatic of everything that is wrong with most films today. Watch and submerge yourself in the reality of this remarkable story-telling – and join the world of sense and sensibility. AS

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