Sátántangó’s opening shot follows a herd of cows wandering a desolate town. The shot is nearly eight minutes long and free of human dialogue, an act of provocation in its deliberate simplicity and harbinger of things to come. Eight minutes down, about 430 to go—Béla Tarr’s 1994 masterpiece has a daunting runtime of over seven hours.
I was fortunate enough to attend a screening of Sátántangó at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica this past Sunday, as part of the American Cinematheque’s “Bleak Week: Cinema of Despair” series. It’s an unfortunate (if apt) way to frame Sátántangó, reducing the work from art to endurance test, something to be surmounted, the Dark Souls of movies. The Blu-ray’s accompanying essay by Janice Lee and Jared Woodland, titled “How to Watch Sátántangó,” (movies so seldom come with strategy guides—I’m reminded of the glossary handout audiences were given at screenings of David Lynch’s Dune adaptation in 1984) similarly assumes in the reader an attitude toward Sátántangó as if it were some arcane torture device, noting in their walkthrough of those opening eight, cow-centric minutes, “Looking at and talking to yourself, recognize that your most terrible viewing experience isn’t sustained stillness but the confrontation with your own dependence on linearity and resolution.”
Linearity and resolution are certainly not what Sátántangó has to offer. Based on László Krasznahorkai’s 1985 novel of the same name, the film features a circular narrative involving a perpetually declining collective farm in an unnamed Hungarian village. Early in the film, “early” being a relative concept in Sátántangó, somewhere within the first hour, two villagers conspire to steal the remaining money from the collective and flee. Meanwhile (earlier? Much later?), a ne’er-do-well named Irimiás (Mihály Víg) is tapped by the police to spy on the village for reasons unclear. Already destitute, villagers lead desperate, quiet lives. Long stretches of the film follow an alcoholic Doctor (Peter Berling) who obsessively documents the goings-on of the village from his window, stopping only to embark on a low-stakes quest (imbued with Homeric import by virtue of the careful pacing) for the prize of more fruit brandy.
Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 1990 essay “A Bluffer’s Guide to Bela Tarr” outlines the challenges Tarr’s work poses to American viewers, mainly our general deficiencies in Hungarian cultural/historical context that might make his opaque narratives a little easier to follow. The Internet has made the task somewhat easier; Rosenbaum had to parse Hungarian film directories and Cahiers du Cinéma indexes for basic biographical information about Tarr—now we have online databases and entire books of critical analysis (it’s sobering to consider that, bestowed with such resources, I’m still more a layman today than Rosenbaum was 30 years ago).
But access to the Internet poses its own challenges to enjoying Sátántangó, that of concentration and patience. I had previously seen Sátántangó on a three-disc DVD set, and armed with a pause button, those seven-plus hours can extend the “viewing” of the film for days, even weeks. About an hour into the Aero screening, I developed an inexplicable thirst for coffee, but was unable to determine a good moment to stand up and leave. There’s something anxiety provoking about such long takes, as I found myself waiting for something to happen, someone to say something, knowing full well that it and they wouldn’t. So I sat there for an additional 30 minutes, just in case. Whatever I was waiting for, I didn’t want to miss it.
I eventually got my coffee, and the movie eventually ended. The screening had been well attended, and the end credits met with appreciative applause. Sometimes you find your people.
Runtime: 439 minutes (Blu-ray edition)
MPA Rating: Unrated
Streaming: The Criterion Channel