- Bela Tarr’s sixth film (and big artistic breakthrough) clocks in at 439 minutes (just under 7 ½ hours)- Santantango is a momentous beacon of 1990s cinema—an important film for camera movement and grayscale photography
- It has a look and feel that is absolutely timeless- take place at any time, if you told me the film was shot in 1964 or it comes from the future– 2024 I’d believe that as well
- Shot in long, measured takes- Tarr’s camera gliding, bypassing, circling characters in this little morose, Hungarian town
- It opens with about a 7-minute shot of cattle on a farm. Yes, you notice the length of the shot and the endless stalking of Tarr’s camera. But also, the stark beauty of the monochrome photography. Tarr has been compared to Jarmusch (meh- maybe a little), Aki Kaurismäki, and Tarkovsky. Surely, he’s most similar to Tarkovsky in the camera movement and the sheer length of the average shot. Also, though, look at the high angle where Tarr points the camera. In many cases at least 50% of the frame is the ground, mud, puddles in front of the characters or landscape. This is Tarkovsky— and both of them sort of the opposite of those who use low angles to highlight the ceiling as mise-en-scene (Welles for one), this is using the floor or ground as mise-en-scene- again and again.
- An omniscient voice-over narration with chapter titles like “news of their coming” – there are actually two intermissions as well
- The setting is bleak- pigs, flies, adultery, theft (parts do play like a caper film), drunkenness (the Pálinka drink), smoking—with a mystic, ethereal quality, condemned, damnation, fog, clouds, perpetual rain, the sound of bells (church at the end, the mention of the book of the Revelations)
- Like The Mirror or the work of Leone, Tarr helps to untether the camera by choosing to dub almost everything in the sound design. Much of it set to the hypnotic accordion music of Mihály Vig. Tarr also utilizes almost like a ticking clock in the sound design.
- With the running time it is worth pointing out that this isn’t a miniseries in terms of plot—I mean it feels epic in philosophy and reach, but there isn’t like seven normal hours of dense story to follow. Tarr hates story anyways. Tarr’s style elongates a normal-sized story—there is less “plot” and actual physical cuts here than in your typical film. Refn’s Too Old to Die Young (2019) feels comparable. It isn’t nearly 13 hours because the screenplay or book it is adapting is 600 pages. The elongation is sort of the opposite of Godard’s revolutionary jump-cut in Breathless where he hacks out the smaller “unimportant” moments he doesn’t want within the scene
- The best character in the film is the town doctor, Peter Berling- a perfect shot of him in the doorway (a reoccurring formal shot choice). You’ll notice the solar system of his in the upper right of the frame when Tarr shoots him from behind at his window. This foreshadows the stunning 11-minute opening shot of Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) six years later
- There’s fat here—there’s a reason this is almost 7 ½ hours and something like Pawlikowski’s Ida or Cold War are under 90-minutes each. Both are achingly gorgeous—but Pawlikowski (not saying his work is necessarily better) would never have a 6-minute close-up of a long monologue like Tarr does. It is a slippery slope when talking about monotony and duration used as a tool. Tarr uses it brilliantly for the most part- indeed, monotony is a big part of the depressing life of this village and its inhabitants. But there are long segments as well where we aren’t awed by the camerawork, composition or photography
- When the lines of the story do intersect it is special- like the little girl outside the bar and her running into the doctor, we first get his perspective, then hers.
- With all of this doom and sadness, there are still moments of humor and levity, like the man pacing back and forth in the bar balancing the bread on his head, or the repetition of “plodding” by the one drunk
- Again, the eulogy is one long sustained monologue in mostly close-up—there’s just not much to latch onto cinematically.
- Tarr forces you to adhere to his rhythms—but you also start to take for granted just how impressive these unhurried, magnificent shots are. There are 25 shots that could be the best single standout shot in another very good film. There is a shot that ends just before the 300-minute mark where Tarr’s camera is above the townsfolk sleeping, and the camera overhead is just swirling – so good. If you look at say Burning by Chang-dong Lee, he uses the long take very differently than Tarr. It isn’t about the rhythms and the consistency (a good trait for Tarr)- it is about punctuating three very special moments in the film: the opening, the twilight melancholic striptease of Jong-seo Jun and the epic finale. Neither choice is superior- they work for both auteurs.
- Repetition of the shot walking down the road with the whirling garbage is brought back near the end- this first appeared in chapter two
- These shots never feel forced, half-hazard or random
- The final chapter- “the circle closes” with the doctor between the doors again— boarding it up—sublime
- A Masterpiece
Wow, a real mammoth film there. The Turin Horse and Werckmeister Harmonies are both in my top 10 of their respective decades, but Satantango has always been a bit intimidating to me. I will hopefully get to it this year though. It seems like you still have it behind both of those, even though it has been upgraded to a masterpiece. I’m wondering how many viewings did you split this up into?
Great work here. So this film is #109 on the TSPDT list is it close to your top 100?
@Anderson- thank you for the kind words. Not sure yet on the top 100. I probably will not be updating my top 100/500 list for another year at least.
Tarr should be shooting way up with this rising up to a MP and The Man From London and The Turin Horse entering the archives the next time you update the directors’ list. Not to mention his being a style-plus director.
@Zane A Schmidt- absolutely
Great job here, great job, i was honestly a bit upset (in silence) to see Forrest gump and Shawshank redemtion ahead of Satantango and see him named in the overrated section.
Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies, wow, will there be the Turin horse or was it a coincidence?
@Aldo- yeah WH came up on one of my random movie generator lists, and then I saw that Satantango was on criterion streaming, and I own the bluray for The Turin Horse (post coming in the next few days)– so the stars just sort of aligned to do a mini Bela Tarr study
Had to give this review a read after leaving a comment on your review of Tar’s 2001 MP, “The Turin Horse”. While I will not be putting this behemoth of a film onto my immediate watch list, like tTH.
I was absolutely giddy at the mention of Chang-dong Lee’s, “Burning”. My personal favorite of 2018, just above other greats like, “Cold War”, “Roma”, and “Annihilation”. It seems nearly all of your reviews inspire in one way or another!