Combustible Celluloid
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With: Mihly Vig, Putyi Horvth, Lszl Lugossy, va Almssy Albert, Jnos Derzsi, Irn Szajki, Alfrd Jrai, Mikls Szkely B., Erzsbet Gal, Erika Bk
Written by: Bela Tarr, based on a novel by Lszl Krasznahorkai
Directed by: Bela Tarr
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Hungarian, with English subtitles
Running Time: 420
Date: 02/08/1994

Sátántangó (1994)

4 Stars (out of 4)

A Very Long Arrangement

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

What is Sátántangó? Film buffs know that it's a 7-hour, black-and-white film, in Hungarian with English subtitles. For years it has been one of those movie "fish stories"; the few that have seen it get boasting rights, not only that they managed to find it, but that they had the endurance to watch the whole thing. But what is it about, and is it actually a good movie beyond its form and length?

Firstly, it is a good movie. It's a great movie, in fact, one of the greatest of all movies. Secondly, it takes patience to watch it, but less than you might think. The writer/director Bela Tarr favors long, long, long takes, but in the grand scheme of things, he has about as many camera setups as any regular, feature-length film -- perhaps less. So if you adjust your brain, it can actually feel like a normal movie.

Based on a novel by László Krasznahorkai, the film is set in a small farming village, where things have come to a standstill and the long, autumn rainy season has just begun. The farmers have their year's salary and a few begin to think about taking the money and running. But a younger man with poetic aspirations, Irimias (Mihály Vig) turns up, though the villagers believed that he was dead. He has a new scheme to bring the farmers and their community back together, but it requires them handing over all their money. Can he be trusted?

Many of the scenes occur simultaneously and certain moments cross over from one scene to the next; Gus Van Sant, a fan of Tarr's, tried the same technique on a much smaller scale in his Elephant (2003). In one sequence, a drunken old doctor runs out of brandy and makes a long, long trek out into the rainy night to get more. In the movie's most heartbreaking sequence, a little girl finds herself disillusioned over the failure of a "money tree" and runs away with a box of rat poison and her dead cat (this sequence contains some images that may offend or disturb animal lovers). The doctor and the little girl cross paths and we see the crossing, twice, from both points of view.

Certainly Irimias is the movie's most fascinating character, and its most appealing. He's the most handsome and confident. Tarr is fond of using faces as "landscapes," and so he has filled his movie with the craggiest, most weathered faces. (Sometimes the film plays like a circus freak show.) Irimias is also very much a Christ figure, though quite a bit shadier. He comes back from the "dead," assumes the natural position of leader, has followers (or "disciples"), speaks eloquently and coaxes the people into putting their faith in him. He's probably closer to the real, historical Christ than any other movie portrayal. Given that his ideas and speech come from left field, it's only natural that the commoners don't really understand him and can't really trust him. But that's what faith is: believing without proof.

Tarr's film is just as confident in its own abilities; it's funny, beautiful, exasperating, horrible and suspenseful, but any viewer may walk away with any of a number of different impressions. Tarr's film also requires a little faith, and though viewers may experience uncertainty going in, Sátántangó cannot be just any casual, or forgettable moviegoing experience.

Sátántangó has been available on a Region 2 DVD for a couple of years now, and Facets has been working on their new Region 1 version for almost as long. It's a magnificently restored disc, apparently approved by Tarr himself. The movie is spread out on three discs, using the natural chapters for breaks. A fourth disc includes three Tarr short films. Macbeth (1982) is a made-for-TV, hour-long adaptation of Shakespeare's play, shot on primitive looking color videotape. Journey on the Plain (1995) runs about a half-hour, in color, once again starring Mihály Vig.

The best short is the five-minute Prologue (2004), done in black-and-white, in one shot, and featuring lots of Tarr's "faces as landscapes." (It was part of a compilation feature called Visions of Europe.) The disc also comes with a restoration demonstration. A great liner notes booklet includes a transcription of a 2007 symposium on Bela Tarr; critics Jonathan Rosenbaum, Scott Foundas and David Bordwell discuss Tarr's work in depth. I don't think much is going to get in the way of this being the DVD of 2008.

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