Satantango opens with a man staring out a window. He looks out, and back in, out, and in again. Minutes pass in this scene in real-time, and when he moves away from the window, the camera holds still, no people in sight, for minutes more. Through this, a distant sound is heard – the mixture of an indistinct ringing bell and a hushed, rhythmic organ. This unmoving, unflinching, uneventful camera captures the thoughts and emotions of a man, the natural relation he has with the world around him, and the importance of patience and thought. Many movies hold for seconds after an event, possibly transitioning between scenes of the landscape after some major happening to give time for the viewer to think. Bela Tarr’s rendition of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s 1985 Hungarian novel, Satantango, takes these moments of contemplation to an extreme that, while it could have easily been an utter failure, managed to reveal and intoxicate more than movies one-third of the length and three times the pace.
In my essay on the novel (an absolute must-read), I try to reveal the root necessity and purpose of the book. The film, I believe, has similar intentions possibly rooted less in the mystic and more in the social (although, both have roots in each realm). It is a story about a group of villagers who have been rendered impoverished by the government, considered useless by the world. Their means of work and purpose have been taken away and they now move through life in a drunken stupor with no morality or love. Children are left to fend for themselves leading to their mental decay (as we see in Estike), their loss of morals (as we see in her brother), and the need to make money through any means necessary (as we see in the two girls prostituting themselves in the warehouse).
It is easy to put the blame on these citizens. However, in the corrupt world and government of Hungary in the time period of the story, they were simply left behind with no other choice. Now, Irimias is coming back to the village – their apparent savior. We see two things in his first chapter: first, that he clearly is working for this same government who left the characters behind, and second, the symbolic walk down the street – an almost satanic aura follows him and his henchman, Petrina, as the wind gusts the abounding trash around them, leaving only a small place for them to walk. He comes to their village promising an Eden, and takes their money, removes them from their homes, only to send them to “work” for certain individuals as the supposed Eden is built. What the government’s goal in this is is unclear by the events of the film – but with an understanding of the time period or of the novel, it is likely that they are being dispersed to spy, without their knowledge, on certain citizens that the government deems suspicious.
The long takes of seemingly insubstantial events go past the abuse that these citizens endure and give a view into their humanity. It allows us to see past pure suffering, refusing to exploit sole emotions, and instead lets the viewer become engrossed by the full range of their life. Back to the first scene of the film, this idea can be seen through the expressions on Futaki’s face. Wonder at the sound of a bell that should not be heard, fear at the same idea, and contemplation of everything regarding and not regarding this moment. When he leaves the view of the camera and we are left with the sight of a window and table, the film now asks us to think on this moment – what he was experiencing and will experience, how we would react to this mystery. The same idea can be found in these other scenes: the doctor walking down the muddy road, each pant and pained breath audible; the camera viewing the single moments of peace on the sleeping characters’ faces; Estike’s face watching the dancing families, filled with awe, wonder, and sadness.
The story, again, is one about a group of people who have been left behind. They are forgotten, uncared for, despised, and then, despite all this hardship, blamed for every mishap as if they were the ones responsible for their plight. The one thing missing from this movie that I believe the book had was a small amount of hope. It ends with the doctor sitting alone in his room, sealed in darkness, reciting the lines that opened the movie. Despite this one small fault, I found the movie to be one of the most moving and revelatory films I have seen in a long time. The more than seven hours of glacially-paced long-takes did not ever feel for a moment to be boring, pointless, or taxing on my attention. Tarr was able to adapt Krasznahorkai’s masterpiece into a masterpiece of his own, following the same ideas and themes while creating a wholly unique work of art that necessitated an adaptation. Where Krasznahorkai creates endless sentences and paragraphs arguing amongst themselves to evoke every possibility of thought and philosophy, Tarr takes those moments and gives us space to think, be patient, and understand the characters through ourselves. Neither work is necessarily better than the other – they can be compared and thus add to each other, or left in their own realms – but one thing is certain: they both exemplify the true differences and qualities of their separate mediums, and are some of the best that those mediums have to offer.
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