My initial plan for this weeks review was to write about Terminator: Dark Fate. It has opened this week and I had some pretty good ideas for it. But then I saw Sátántangó, and I had to change my mind. Now, despite being a self-appointed movie connoisseur, I have to admit that I have some serious gaps in my repertoire as far as movie classics go and even more so when it comes to Hungarian cinema. I am Hungarian, but somehow my native country’s movies never really managed to grab my interest, as most of them felt like they are following the same cook book: grab a handful of the countries biggest acting names and use them to sell the movie, no need for scripts. So I think I can be excused for not showing enthusiasm for Hungarian films. Nevertheless, the opportunity has presented itself for me to take part of the screening of one of the most critically acclaimed Hungarian movie of all time, Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó, so I went for it. The event marked the 25th anniversary of the original release of the movie and also celebrated the fact that the movie has been transferred to 4K and will be rereleased on Blu-ray and digital VOD in the following months.
Now, lets start with the obvious. This is a long movie. To be more precise, it is 7 hours and 30 minutes long. That is almost as long as the entire last season of Game Of Thrones back to back, give or take about 10 minutes. That is a lot of movie. Thankfully, there were 2 intermissions during the screening, and as far as I can tell, their placement were designed by the filmmakers, so there is no unrealistic expectation on their behalf that you should be able to sit trough a workday amount of time with no bathroom break. Also, given the length, I was expecting a really eventful story. I mean, you can unpack a lot in almost 8 hours of screen time. But to my surprise, the overall story is not that big or complicated. It could have been boiled down to an easy 2 hours long cut, maybe even shorter. The length of the movie is in fact not dictated by the story but by the length of each individual shot. Something that in other movies would have been only 5-10 seconds long, here can linger on a good 5 minutes on the screen. During the first intermission I was searching the cast and crew list on my phone just to see if there is an editor listed among them, as I was fairly convinced (still am) that everything that Tarr Béla has shot for the movie has ended up in the movie. That being said, the other surprising thing that I found with this movie was that its length had not taken nearly as big of a toll on me as I feared it would. It is incredibly well paced. In fact, there are a lot of regular length movies that have drained me a great deal more than Sátántangó did. However, if it were not for a theatrical screening, I don’t think I would have had the patience to watch it all the way through. And for many, it did prove to be too much, as we started the screening with a sold out, full room and by the end about half the people were no longer in their seats.
The story is as follows: a small group of people are living in a run down, middle of nowhere, isolated little agricole commune. It is late autumn, it is constantly raining and everybody is awaiting their big payday for their year long toil. Some have more ambitious plans for the money, than others. However, all their plans are blown out of the water when they learn that Irimiás and Petrina, 2 long gone colleagues that everybody thought to be dead, are on their way back to the commune. Everybody is afraid that Irimiás will take away their one chance of getting out of the shithole they are living in. As such, they began scheming.
While the story is simple and could have been easily covered in just 2 hours, you will have questions. Some things are never fully explained. And while I would really like to know the answers to my questions, in the grand scheme of things, these answers are not necessary. That being said, we do get to know well our protagonists. We get to walk a mile in their shoes, to feel their feelings, fear their fears, live their misery. We are getting intimate with them. Thank God that we cannot smell what they smell because that would be a most foul of experience. There are some scenes though that are very though to go through, like one with animal cruelty. One cat might have bought the short end of the stick in this movie. I still hope that it was only movie magic what I have seen. There was one more scene where one of the characters was repeating the same stuff, over and over again, like a broke record. Sure, he was supposed to be drunk and the behavior was very consistent with this, but having to listen for 10 minutes non-stop the same awful story on full volume, is a bit too much.
As for the characters, this is an ensemble type of movie, with no clear lead, although one might argue that Irimiás is definitely the lead. I wouldn’t agree with that, but I can understand the viewpoint. Some characters prove to be more important than others, as in as much that they have some individual plot lines as well within the movie, such as Futaki, the Schimdts, Irimiás, the doctor and the little girl Estike. The remaining characters are just coming along for the ride. The actors are all excellent, giving powerhouse level performances. Remember, this is a movie of extremely long shots, so getting them just right is much more difficult. Also, there are a lot of close up shots, where there is no speech, just the actors staring at things, yet they manage to transmit the exact message that the story requires: fear, hope, misery, disbelief and so on.
The music in this movie is just haunting. Mostly piano and accordion music, but never a warm sounding instrument in the mix. Even when the scene tries to be a hopeful one, the music smuggles in a note of sorrow. It’s a perfect blend of hopefulness and sadness. Perfect to get drunk to.
One aspect that I have not mentioned is that the entire movie is shot in black in white. This, combined with the fact that it is always raining, one could say that this is a perfect example of a Hungarian noir film. And yes, same as other noir movies, this too has its mysteries and tragical nature. If fact, the entire story behind Irimiás has a David Lynch sort of vibe to it, one that is not meant to be understood, one that is meant to cause wonder.
This movie has surprised me. I have went in the theater with no expectations other than to be able to put the check mark next to another name on the “movie classics that I have seen in the cinema” list and to have the bragging rights that yes, I have sat trough a 7 hours plus movie. I did not expect to be moved as much as this movie has moved me. Often I was annoyed, often I was disgusted, often I was checking my watch. I truly believe that this film needs and editor that can cut it down to just 2 hours. Yet, after all this, I would not change a thing. This movie just works as is. And it could only work as is. It is a slow burn roller coaster. A cinematic pilgrimage that you need to do at least once in your life. it’s a hard watch. It’s a must watch. Go out and see it.