Bela Tarr’s monstrously long piece of work, Sátántangó, is an unrelenting seven hours and fourteen minutes long. Best watched as a TV show – the film is divided into seven parts – the film was widely seen as part of a wider foreign film movement that tried to challenge audiences, in the same way that Dogme95 did. While this epic film has nothing in common with the films that the Dogme95 movement produced, it does adhere to the basic philosophy of those films – purity and honesty.
The film is about the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Bloc through the prism of a small farm in Hungary. Told completely in black and white, with whole minutes of master shots of out-buildings and heavy turgid silence, the film seeks to capture the raw and emotional tension of life in such a harsh atmosphere. The relationships between the characters, who come and go throughout the film, slowly break down and the effects manifest themselves in interesting ways.
One section, the section that prevented the DVD release of this film for many years in the UK, is a hideous scene in which a young girl tortures a cat. What makes this scene even more disturbing is that the child seems as distressed as the cat does about this, like she’s acting beyond her control and doesn’t understand her own angry emotions – like children in real life, she lashes out at those she perceives to be weaker than her, because she doesn’t yet have the maturity to talk it out. The way this story concludes itself is both heartbreaking and needless, and shows further that some of the separate scenes in this film could be released as short films in themselves.
Bela Tarr’s style remains consistent through his films but it was with this film that he found the courage to just go all out and do the film he wanted to do. His other films run at a similarly glacial pace but none run to quite the same length, thankfully. The film is a truly great and important work but even its most voracious fans struggle to watch it in one or two sittings. To put the duration into perspective however, the Pirates of the Caribbean films run longer as a collective than this film, and they are some of the most popular films in history.
As a pure technical achievement, this film is a masterpiece. No other film will make you marvel at its technique, and the control that Tarr holds over the entire production. It is long but it is studied and its focus never wavers. It never feels over-long and it never feels like Tarr is trying to make his film long for the sake of it. The opening shot of cows, somehow choreographed perfectly with the camera, starts the film as it means to go on.
It might be in Hungarian, it might be black and white, and it might run at over seven hours, but Sátántangó is really worthwhile and a fun watch if you’ve got a week to spare.