Active Ingredients: Mesmerizing photography; Subtle humor; Intricate chronology
Side Effects: Character of Irimias; Police scenes; Composition of some static shots
Béla Tarr’s monumental Sátántangó, which uses intensely cinematic long takes and textured black and white photography to explore the hopes and despairs of communal farmers in Hungary, clocks in at seven and a half hours. I counted approximately 150 shots over that time, making an average shot length of about 3 full minutes, though some run much longer. Tarr’s long takes are marvels of patience, technical perfection and bold artistic choices, and his film proves the incredibly diverse emotional effects of the technique. We experience the angst of his characters, not through dialogue, but as a direct result of duration, observing them against the desolate backdrop of their environment. The farmers, in fact, rarely speak, and probably don’t even think about the existential issues Tarr extracts from them, yet they live it with every breath and every gesture, and so do we.
Their community, and indeed Communism, is on the verge of collapse, and the meager wages they’ve earned over the year are in danger of being conned away by a smooth-talking, intellectual young man, Irimias. He’s everything the farmers are not: verbose, self-reflecting, confident and convincing. The juxtaposition, both in his characterization and in Tarr’s formal representation of him, is stark and allows for themes of toil, survival and trust to emerge, yet Irimias seems a distraction from the substance of this epic work. Tarr derives so much from stoic faces and silence, that actor Mihály Vig is unable to stand up to all that the film asks of him. For me, Tarr’s latest, The Turin Horse, smooths out all of the minor issues I see with Sátántangó, and, though nearly 5 hours shorter, feels even more complete both thematically and formally. Still the hard-earned, almost-blissful state the film confers to the viewer, its subtle humor and filmic beauty makes this a mammoth work.