Sátántangó (Satan's Tango) Reviews
Does it justify its monumental length, over ten-minute scenes of cows moving around a farmyard, or people sitting around waiting, or bureaucrats taking a break from typing up (in real time) a dossier on the other characters to eat their lunch (in real time), or characters walking from one place to another? Well, yes, easily. Obviously there's no reason why films "need" to come home inside two of two hours or so, other than economic ones, which I'm sure real artists ought to roundly scorn; and the complete lack of hurry enables a very different atmosphere to be built up in Satantango that you probably won't find anywhere else. It probably doesn't hurt that this is a tale of post-Soviet inertia and despair, of trudging along muddy roads and through litter-blown streets to a backdrop of constant rain and the chill of impending winter coming in. If the director's choices leave you full of existential ache and ennui he's probably done his job. (The novel on which this is based has no paragraph breaks either, I'm told.)
Plotwise, we are introduced to 8 or so characters who live on a farming commune and don't seem particularly happy about it, whiling away their days boozing, bedhopping and making plans to sneak off with the others' money. A little excitement is generated when they hear that a man called Irimias, whom they'd thought was dead, is on his way back. Irimias turns out to be a charismatic (if faintly unhinged) cult leader type whose return coincides with the tragic death of a neglected little girl who kills her cat and then herself with rat poison. At the funeral, in the mood of communal grief, the other characters are receptive to Irimias's suggestion that they hand over their life savings to him to start a new model farm. Of course this doesn't actually materialise and the next day he packs them all off to various parts of the country to await activation in the next stage of his plan, while having sent unflattering reports of them as morons and degenerates to the government. So all pretty bleak on the human nature, and the human capacity for self-delusion, fronts.
I definitely don't think it's beyond the realm of possibility that some of the acclaim for this film in Stockholm (Budapest?) syndrome - having spent a day of your life watching it, the last thing any critic wants to do is say "yeah, it was disappointing, I was a mug". It's got some lovely cinematography but I've seen more beautifully shot films; the characters held my interest but I wouldn't say they were overwhelmingly fascinating; we've mentioned a plot but it's really just some things happening with a camera pointed at them, rather than the most gripping or devastating events in the world. But as I say, a unique experience that is quite different from almost anything else you'll get from watching films. I wouldn't want to do this every day but one day of it was a day well spent.
No matter how sprawling it may be, the film is mostly a dead-quiet meditation upon very little, if anything, that relies on atmosphere more than anything when it comes to reinforcing the intrigue that is actually thinned into dissipation by the thoughtfulness, so score composer and, interestingly enough, starring actor Mihály Vig's are mighty underused, and when it finally does come into play, there's not a whole lot that's special about it, but make no mistake, there are, in fact, some special aspects regarding this film's very sparse musical aspects, which deliver on anything from relatively livelier compositions which are intentionally disjointed in a way that doesn't get too carried away for you to disregard the entertaining musical uniqueness that colors things up a bit, to a certain brooding minimalism which captures the somber intensity of certain moments. Needless to say, Gábor Medvigy's cinematography is a much more recurring compliment to the film's tone, and even then, the black-and-white color of the white limits visual style, while director Béla Tarr's abusive misuse of the photography for the sake of questionable artistic touches that I'll touch more upon later dilute your appreciation for the film's visual style entirely, though not so much so that you can ever completely deny the film's good looks, as the limited color captures the bleak grit of the film, while moments of sharp play with sparse lighting prove to be gorgeous. Musicality is unevenly used and sometimes misused, and visual style is about as often misused as it is attractive, so if nothing else is consistent at bringing some kind of life to this tiresome drama, it's the performances, because when I say that this film has no script, I literally mean that this film just had a script for the sake of having a script, so most of what material there is was improvised, and while there are times where the improvisation gets to be about as aimless as the "story"telling surrounding the performances (One of the film's more entertaining moments is some guy dancing the tango and chanting on and on about how his mother is the sea, his father is the earth, and his life is the tango... over, and over, and over again), on the whole, the improvisation allows the performers to bond with their roles and bring them the characters to life as best they can, sometimes with enough effectiveness to inspire some kind of compellingness. There are strengths in this film, it's just that they're so outweighed by the missteps, and for an impossibly unreasonable amount of time at that, yet you can spot them here and there, especially when they go backed by a rarity: an effective moment in the telling of what story there is. I wouldn't say that the film is quite as unwatchable as something like "La Commune (Paris, 1871)", because even though this is the much longer and slower film, it eventually comes to some kind of an action, while "La Commune" actually has the audacity to, whether it be through anachronisms or fourth wall breaks, actively repel you from the conceptually weighty story, and while this film is by no means too much more inspired, you rarely completely forget the importance of this film's subject matter, and are certainly reminded when Béla Tarr steps up to the plate as director, playing with the airtight framing in a way that you grow tired of the more shots linger, but sometimes proves to be effective in immersing you, much like plays with haunting sound that generally provide white noise to exacerbate the drowsiness suffered throughout this seven-hour+ struggle, but sometimes subtly define the harsh, bleak tone of the film with a certain minimalist tastefulness. That's right, people, the film is seven hours and a quarter of arrogant and abusive tedium on a level beyond comprehension, and the best thing that you can say about it is that it is sometimes depressing, but make no bones about it, the patient are bound to run into a few moments that give you a drop of what the pretentious critics could be talking about, limited though they may be. Of course, on the whole, this film requires just too much blasted patience to only have a few enjoyable moments, and while there is enough realization to the film for it to not be an unpalatable torture, watching this film is a challenge that I can't even begin to recommend, because it doesn't even handle plotting all that well when it actually does take on something resembling a story.
There is a whole lot more plodding than plotting in this mindlessly aimless snooezefest of over-experimentation, but if you want to say that there is something of a story structure, you should note that the film is divided into twelve segments (Yes, twelve segments in a little under eight hours; Transatlantic's "The Whirlwind" is starting to sound a whole lot shorter) that all connect in some fashion, but often just barely, with the most consistent aspect within each segment being padding so considerable that you have trouble remembering and getting invested in the segment you're watching at the moment, let alone the other segments, resulting in focal unevenness, a term I use pretty loosely, because there's any focus in this film. There's a whole lot of rambling, but hardly any exposition, and a whole lot of wandering, but hardly any direction, so what you end up with is a sprawling character drama that pays only so much focus to its characters, which would be easier to forgive if there weren't so many extra-distancingly questionable character actions, most of which are forced in to supplement the artistic "story"telling. Whether they're whispering dialogue much too often or just standing around doing nothing much longer than your average Joe, the characters come off as not too much more than mere components to the artistic steadiness which drives this non-narrative, though you quickly forget this, certainly not because the characters are well-handled enough to be ever so slightly less than thoroughly unengaging, but because questionable characterization is overshadowed by a substantially more problematic component to the film's deliberate steadiness, a torturously bone-dry atmosphere, whose thoughtful attention to the environment proves to be occasionally immersive, but mostly dulls things down beyond belief, not sometimes, or often, or half of the time, or even three quarters of the time, but nearly throughout the entirety of this film whose running time is among the longest in cinematic history. Limply paced and utterly quiet, if you're lucky (Oh, the unbearable white noise of rain, wind and footsteps, so many footsteps), this film has been called by many to be consistently engrossing, and that statement is so beyond conceivability that it qualifies more as a blatant factual inaccuracy than a questionable opinion, because the film is always bland, to one degree or another, and is mostly boring, and I would be more willing to forgive that and conclude that the final product is, I don't know, mediocre or something, - like such other tedious, but reasonably tasteful art pieces as, say, "Wings of Desire", or "Days of Heaven", or whatever - were it not for there being an unthinkable amount of time to think about how boring this all is. At about seven hours and a quarter, or 435 minutes, or 26100 seconds, or 26100000 milliseconds, or 26100000000 microseconds, or 26100000000000 nanoseconds... give or take, this film takes on relatively minimalist subject matter and, somewhere along the way, ends up being one of the longest feature films of all time (It's certainly the longest film I've ever seen; why couldn't it have stayed something as awesome as "The Best of Youth"?), and as you can imagine, it doesn't do so easily, bloating itself to a mind-numbingly monotonous point, partly through excess material, and largely through long, long, long periods of absolutely nothing but nothing, most of which don't even give you the common courtesy of changing angles, because even with this film's unreal runtime of about seven hours and a quarter, Tarr himself has stated that there are "[u]well under 200[/u]" shots throughout the final product, which often spends minutes, upon minutes, upon minutes on showcasing imagery as eventful as walking, or mumbling, or a cat falling asleep (They portray the sedation of the cat as a poisoning, and sure, it's convincing and all, but after a while, even my cat-adoring self more-or-less stopped caring), or on imagery that is nothing more than an impossibly overlong scenery shot, and if you think that I'm exaggerating, if anything, I'm grossly understating how exhaustingly comical this film's "artistic" meditations are. Between the opening credits and an introductory narration is a slowly wandering tracking shot of cows making their way across the farm around which this film's "story" is mostly centered that runs for, not one minute, or three minutes, or even the five minutes that I've once heard someone say they "felt" the sequence ran... but [b][u]eight minutes[/b][/u], and right there, Béla Tarr lets you know what to expect: tediously dull, exhaustingly overdrawn and mind-numbingly misguided abuse of an artistic license, though that's not to say that Tarr tells you that you don't have to endure this film from then on, because even though I feel some sense of relief to find that there is more of a sense of "charming" ambition to this film and less of a sense of crushing pretense than I feared, there's still some air of arrogance throughout this film, as if Tarr truly is proud of what he has done, and done wrong, and all that leaves you to do is further meditate even more upon problems that couldn't get any more glaring without the pretense, and can't get too much more grating with the pretense. The film is not quite as unwatchable as I feared, but it's just too artistically misguided to be nearly as enjoyable as it probably should have been, and films like this almost shake my faith in my dream job, because, as a film critic, I sometimes just don't feel right being associated with a community that, in a fashion believed to be brilliant, rather than downright stupid, lauds something as an artistic revelation, or genius, or, Lord forbid, one of the greatest cinematic triumphs of all time just for being different, when really, it's nothing more than torturously overblown abuse of snobbiness behind what could be anything from an intellectual making a stroke of utter artistic insanity, to some kind of a sick joke which tests both the endurance of rational moviegoers and the level of the pretentious' ignorance, but is either way barely watchable for an hour-and-a-half, a waste of time at two-and-a-half hours, infuriating at three hours and the ultimate challenge to patience at about seven hours and a quarter, and while, with the help of the glory that is internet time-killing, I was able to qualify for an "I Survived 'Sátántangó'" t-shirt, I certainly had no investment in this disaster, and grew to not even humor it with any beyond the barest minimum of my attention, if that, because while this film would have been worse were it not for the value of its subject matter and some other genuine highlights, it aimlessly rambles on and on about how life is precious, or something, then wastes much too much of precious time out of your life.
When the tango is done, leaving you to not want to do anything outside of fall on the floor exhausted (If I wasn't out of shape before, sitting here this long just has to have thinned out my muscle tone a bit), you struggle to reflect on the decent, if tremendously underused score work, handsome, if tremendously misused, committed, if very much underwritten performances (Seriously, there was more-or-less no script handy), and highlights in direction which do justice to conceptually worthy subject matter, and you're bound to come up with enough to commend for the final product to not be any worse than really bad, but through unevenness within whatever focus there is, questionable characterization and punishing dullness, all packed within an impossibly monotonous runtime that runs well over seven hours and is mostly achieved through comically misguided meditations upon nothing but nothing that go consistently backed by a certain self-righteousness to Béla Tarr's otherwise mostly dead-cold atmosphere, "Sátántangó" falls spectacularly flat as a disturbingly overappreciated disaster which wastes all but mere moments of a considerable deal of precious time.
1.5/5 - Bad