• 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.

look at the subtle high angle at which Tarr often positions his camera…

… puddles, mud, accentuating the long road through the angle of the shot.. I mean look at where the horizon often sits

Tarkvosky would use a similar angle — he’d design the actual ground (exterior) or floor (interior) as part of the mise-en-scene….sort of the opposite of what auteurs like Welles have done with low-angle shots accentuating the ceiling

“We are resurrected” chapter two— the long tracking shot forward up the road (again, the ground taking up the dominant portion of the frame) with whirling garbage– this sequence is formally repeated near the end of the film

  • 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

through Tarr’s trademark duration– we often get a very long hold on these cinematic paintings

  • 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

At the 151-minute mark a handsome frame as the actors pose in the bar as Tarr backs the camera up

The young tragic girl sitting at 172-minutes, Tarr holds for one minute on this breathtaking photograph, then of course the camera tracks while she walks

  • 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.

Speaking of Pawlikowski (this is decades before his masterpieces in 2013 and 2018 of course), there’s a great frame at the 214-minute mark of the girl at the run-down church or rubble– it could be (it isn’t, but it could be) the same location from Cold War 

  • 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

A strong tableau arrangement of the townsfolk at the funeral- a pose at 262-minutes

  • Again, the eulogy is one long sustained monologue in mostly close-up—there’s just not much to latch onto cinematically.

Great form in the repetition of the frame within the frame doorway photography—the doctor in chapter two (above here)…

the man outside in the rain jacket at 360-minutes here…

the little girl with her cat here– and though not pictured the owl at 318 minutes with Tarr’s slow tracking shot in- ridiculously spectacular

  • 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.

These actors all have the look of defeat on their faces—the location matches- the long dirt road with mud flanked by the bare trees could be from Antonioni’s Il Grido- a very fitting tone

  • 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