The good news for film snobs is that one of the hard-to-find holy grails of arthouse cinema, Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó, just got a 4K restoration and launched across multiple streaming platforms on Friday with Vimeo and through Film at Lincoln Center’s Virtual Cinema (it will also be available on Kanopy on April 27th, then Amazon and iTunes in May). The bad news is that this movie — originally released in 1994 and rarely seen outside of festivals or the most erudite film societies — is indeed truly a remarkable artistic achievement, but requires a level of discipline almost impossible to sustain in a home-viewing environment, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. But if you can conquer it, your bragging rights will be substantial.
I’ll explain. Sátántangó is seven hours and 19 minutes long. That may not sound like a big deal these days, what with the entire nation zipping through all of Tiger King with hardly a pee break. But it was French philosopher Henri Bergson who argued that the duration of a moment was immeasurable. Gobbling up tabloid television isn’t the same as watching cold, miserable Hungarian farmers walk dirt roads for expansive, dialogue-free stretches set to moody swirls of electronic music. Again and again. And again.
The plot of Sátántangó (which translates as “Satan’s Tango”) isn’t complex, per se, but to grasp its weight, you just kinda have to sit with it. It concerns a group of destitute farmers in a remote village (indoor plumbing isn’t guaranteed). The season has ended, and the workers are about to get paid, just in time for the rains that come and turn everything into brown slop. One of the miserable-looking locals awakens to hear bells in the distance, even though the only church, miles away, was destroyed in the war. (I’m going to assume World War II, but there’s nothing in this movie to suggest this isn’t set in a parallel universe, or some far-off dystopia.) He’s then almost caught schtupping his neighbor’s wife, but overhears that two of his comrades are scheming to run off with everyone’s dough. There is a confrontation, and a new agreement, but before that can happen, word comes that Irmiás and his pal Petrina, thought to be dead, are returning. The town prepares.
Irmiás, played by the film’s composer Mihály Víg, is the only one in the film who doesn’t look like he’s about to keel over from some kind of bone disease. (He actually resembles Pink Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright in his youth.) He is a messiah-like figure, who somehow holds the small group of nervous, backstabbing townsfolk in his sway. What he’s actually planning for them is a little hard to discern, but we know that he’s made a deal with some sort of authority figure, who lectures about the dangers of freedom.
That the film was made just after the fall of communism casts a shadow over everything, if you want to read it that way. But if you don’t, well, it’s also just a movie where people drink and babble and dance and fall in the mud and then walk, walk, walk, walk silently to some destination for reasons that are never made abundantly clear. There are 12 chapters, and like a tango, they move forward and then back. As such, we see some sequences more than once, from different points of view.
Most memorable is a scene in the local tavern (a blank room with a few tables, chairs and pitchers of pálinka) during a rainy night. First we see it over the shoulder of a young girl: men and women drunkenly dance to a repetitive accordion tune. The shot is held for a weirdly long amount of time; we watch her watch them (a common motif), and the dancers less resemble people than fish in a tank. There is no story movement happening, but you can sit there and follow a specific person as everyone buzzes around like electrons, bouncing off one another, smiling, snapping, grabbing, shoving.
Later in the film we return to the scene, but now we’re inside of it. There are actually more drunks in there than we originally realized, including one dude who stumbles around balancing whatever the Hungarian term for a hoagie roll is. I will confess I did think about this meme:
Tarr’s is a cinema of reverie, one that requires you to let its own cadence draw you in. The first eight minutes of this movie is a single shot of cows just kinda walking around in the mud near some rundown buildings. Surely this means something, you begin to think. I mean, it has to, right?
Sátántangó appears 35th on the most recent Sight & Sound critics poll and no less an egghead than Susan Sontag stumped for Tarr. And despite the little contrarian that lives in my belly, I don’t think this is a case of emperor’s new clothes. This is genuine art; these images are too specific, too tactile, too unnerving not to work a dark magic on you if you allow it. Yes, there’s sure to be a part of you wondering, “How long do I need to watch this person slowly cross a field?” But when you come away from a scene thinking, “God, I can smell that room,” you’ll understand.
I’d seen Sátántangó once before, in May 2011 at New York’s Anthology Film Archives, a nonprofit cinema with a taste for the experimental, in a converted courthouse. With two baked-in intermissions, it was a whole day affair. (I remember it being quite clement out, and that maybe this was the ultimate in “indoor kid” behavior.) What thrilled me about that experience was being in the auditorium, with the echoey bells on the soundtrack reverberating as I gazed at all that wind and cold and misery and boredom.
Obviously, I zoned out and fell asleep here and there. But this is the type of movie that only improves from such a thing. I’ve long contended that the legendary midnight movies, like Eraserhead, achieved their greatness because people were tired! And with that weirdness stimulating your semi-consciousness, it’s only going to trigger even better memories.
But nodding off on your own couch offers no romanticism. Also, with panic just outside the door (hello from Queens, New York, coronavirus capital of the world!) and the president’s temperamental tweets sending the news cycle to a fainting couch that merely bounces it upright again, I must confess it wasn’t easy to get into the zone.
That said, this could be, hopefully, a me problem, and not a you problem.
Another thing to look out for is a lengthy sequence in which the young girl spying on the dancing drunks torments and kills a cat. Supposedly the cat was fine (maybe they just fed it sleeping pills?), but the scene where she wrestles it looks like more than just play to me.
But then again, I don’t live in a vexing black-and-white movie with endless, wordless passages of people walking in the wind. Everything works differently there.