Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Satantango (Béla Tarr, 1994)

Counting his production of Macbeth for Hungarian television, Tarr has directed nine films since 1979. Tarr's early works are rooted in common, insular social environments. Tarr's later films are similarly distinctive but their visual styles are often characterized by frequent long takes that recall the work of Andrei Tarkovsky. This rigorous style is on display throughout the director's seminal Sátántangó, a film that is routinely lauded in film circuits but has rarely been seen by the public. Sátántangó begins with a formidable opening shot that is hypnotic: within a rural farming community, a single take captures a herd of cattle as they exit a warehouse pen. Some roam about and graze inattentively while others impulsively copulate. The entire herd moves between houses and barns, and slowly moves toward the horizon. This action is stark, unusual and darkly satiric. In these opening minutes the farmers' livestock is able to freely move around, however, it is this option of freedom that no human character in the film shares. Rain is a constant companion in the film, and Tarr seems to analogize it with poverty. Most of the film's principle characters develop a scheme to rob a sum of money that has been promised, in shares, to each farmer. The possibility of wealth fosters greed, deceit, and infidelity. Futaki and Mrs. Schmidt are seen plotting, and are interrupted by Mr. Schmidt, another secret conspirator who unknowingly reveals his scheme to a hiding Futaki. One sin leads to another and deceit interconnects each person in the entire community. The characters in Sátántangó are assembled in a hierarchy of domination and betrayal; it's a trap where even the most secret conspiracy is disruptively repercussive. At the fringe of this web is the young Estike. She has been fleeced of her modest savings by her bother, and this loss results in frustration. She latches on to a pet cat, terrorizing it and finally forcing its head into a bowl of poisoned milk. Afterward she fashions an identical elixir for herself. In this manner, betrayal inevitably tenders the highest cost for the lowest-tiered conspirator. The tragedy affects everyone. The entire film is stitched together from a series of long shots—a minute number in proportion to the film's epic length. This cinematographic tactic visually manifests the film's thematic intentions. There are numerous instances of this visual signature, and the effect is hypnotic: sunrises occur in real time; figures move toward distant horizons and diminish; close-ups track along walking heads that bob vertically—and endlessly—in and out of frame. These actions are all captured with bold, static patience, and are demonstrative of the ennui of the film's deprived community. Sátántangó is structured in a repetitive chronology that apes the rhythmic tally of the tango. Episodes are followed or preceded by others that transpire simultaneously but from different perspectives, and passages without action (for example, a lengthy scene where characters engage in the titular dance) are supplementary to ones that precede or follow. Slowly, the viewer is informed of every betrayal and lie, of every deceit in a community that relies, ironically, upon faith. The film is divided into 12 episodes, some of which only indirectly convey the film's signifying theme of desperation. In illustrative contrast to Estike's desperate violence, a community doctor, a voyeur who records the actions of neighbors through his window, fumbles through his every scene in a permanent vodka-induced stupor. He is as poor and desperate as any other character, yet his behavior is comic in what is an otherwise tragic film. Sátántangó is a compilation of such stark and discriminated pieces. It's the cumulative alliance of a number of contrasted themes that derives the film's irony: it is at once sympathetic and patronizing, both tragic and satiric. It is this insidious yet ambiguous political nature that characterizes Sátántangó as a Hungarian film, in turn perpetuating its obscurity and qualifying its art.

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