(30/01/07) – When Krzysztof Kieslowski announced his retirement after completing the Three Colours Trilogy in 1994, he was told by a journalist ‘You’ll be missed’ to which he replied ‘Don’t worry, someone else will come along.’ It can be argued that Bela Tarr is now the torch bearer for highbrow European Cinema, the first to have such critical esteem since Kieslowski in the early 90s and, before him, Andrei Tarkovsky in the 70s and 80s. Indeed, many have compared Tarr’s work with Tarkovsky and some might consider him the latter day equivalent of the Russian director. Though Tarr is certainly an advocate of the long-take and often influenced by metaphysical elements, the comparisons are debatable as Tarkovsky concerned himself more with recurring motifs and later classical unities akin to Aristotle.

László Krasznahorkai wrote the novel for Satantango, and also collaborated on the screenplays for Tarr’s Damnation from 1987, The Werckmeister Harmonies in 2000, as well as the forthcoming The Man from London. Satantango, released in 1994, is the only film of the four that was originally written as a novel, having (at least at the time) no film adaptation in mind. There is more of a storyline here compared to the minimalist narratives of his other films, with Satantango falling somewhere between his usual avant-garde cinema and that of a traditional narrative, albeit an unconventional one. The film comprises 12 chapters but, much like the suggestion of a tango in the title, it is not necessarily following a chronological path. Some chapters play much like separate short films but there’s a definite trail that links them. The use of a voice-over narrator underlines a divine governing force in the story, alluding to the idea of someone narrating parts of Krasznahorkai’s novel.

Satantango is set in a bleak, isolated decaying village in the year zero of post-communist Hungary, where life has come to a virtual standstill and the moody autumn rains have started. In order to obsolete the village completely, the villagers have been offered a large cash payment to help them disperse and re-settle as the landowners see no future for their farm collective. Even here, corruption is omnipresent and, if not a viable excuse, still a means of survival. A couple of the farm collective want to split with the cash and leave their fellow villagers stranded, partly motivated perhaps by the knowledge that Irimias (who was believed dead) is coming back with a mission to save the village.

Though he is the pivotal character of this seven-hour film, it would be wrong to think of Irimias as the star of Satantango. Apart from his introductory appearance in the second chapter, he does not appear until two thirds of the way through. However, his spiritual presence is conveyed exquisitely. Even in his absence. Irimias is so benevolent that he seems too good to be true and he conveys more of an entrepreneurial rather than altruistic nature, which creates a certain ambiguity in him, an air of mystery. Some villagers are suspect of his good intentions, believing he may take the money for his own ends. Moreover, there is the question of whether the Satan in the title is a character from the film or a darker invisible force.

Mihály Vig plays the role of Irimias but he is most notable for having provided the music for Tarr’s films since Damnation. Zbigniew Preisner did the same for Krzysztof Kieslowski since the director’s No End in 1984 through to the Three Colours Trilogy. Though an occasional actor, this is the first Tarr film Vig has appeared in. As composer and protagonist, Vig is even more of a collaborator than usual and his is a brilliant performance but then it’s remarkable how the director brings out such great performances from mainly non-actors, how he manages to make them act so masterfully in long-takes without making mistakes.

Tarr’s recent films have been shot in monochrome. To some it may seem pretentious but does it convey a bleakness in a way that colour can not? He also uses long takes in medium or long-shot, in many cases with a duration of several minutes and slow pans or zooms, usually with remarkable results. Although so many idiosyncratic elements create many questions, Tarr is always willing to oblige: "You know I like the continuity, because you have a special tension. Everybody is much more concentrated than when you have these short takes. And I like very much to build things, to conceive the scenes, how we can turn around somebody, you know, all the movements implied in these shots. It’s like a play, and how we can tell something, tell something about life… Because it’s very important to make the film a real psychological process…" (see Bright Lights link). Though what Tarr says is absolute, it adds to the enigma considering that he’s touching on psychological processes. This direction of characters coupled with stylistic elements of mise-en-scene is perhaps the key in his creating this very unique world.

Despite being similar in atmosphere to his other two well-known films, Satantangohas a slightly more upbeat mood to it. The most distressing part, coming halfway through, is the Comes Unstitched chapter concerning the tragedy of a young girl. Left carelessly by her mother and deceived by a friend, this naïve girl has only her cat as a loyal companion but she shows cruelty to it and this makes uncomfortable viewing. Was her fate a divine retribution for this? Regardless, she is a very crucial and motivating factor in other areas of the plot, particularly that of Irimias as a figure of redemption who uses her tragedy as a challenge for the decaying community in the dilapidated village to come together. Another scene – Just Trouble and Work – has the apparent look of transferred digital stock which hints at Satantangocompletion issues. A seemingly incidental chapter, it becomes progressively intriguing because it conveys how detached civil servants behave when deciding the fate of individuals in a community. All they want is to finish work quickly so they can go home.

Satantango may not be digestible for everyone but it’s a masterwork by a fantastic director who is hopefully still young enough to produce more works of this kind, as long as the financial backing and support is there. However, the director sees himself set apart from his own film industry. In light of this we should perhaps leave the final word with Bela Tarr himself:

"I have nothing to do with the filming community in Budapest. They don’t like me, because I don’t make conventional films. I can’t talk with them about films, because I live and think differently than them. They are film makers and I am not. I don’t know what I am." (From the director´s IMDB biography).

The DVD has no extras but a film of this length that is so complete carries a strong enough claim that it does not need anything to support it for good value. If you’re not lucky enough to catch a cinema screening, the experience of seeing it on DVD is still a remarkable one.

Satantango is out on DVD now. Please follow the links provided to purchase a copy and support Kamera by doing so.