Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Film: Satantango (Satan’s Tango)
Format: DVDs from NetFlix on various players.

There are plenty of films in this world that make the average movie viewer distrust the serious film critic. Much of the catalog of Fellini, for instance, falls into this broad category. Films with really long takes, not much happening, huge pauses, shots of empty places, dry dialogue scenes, incomprehensible plots, and other staples of art films seem to thrill critics and both bore and frustrate someone who simply watches films for entertainment.

And thus we come to Bela Tarr’s Satantango (Satan’s Tango), a film that is the epitome of heralded art film that those not serious about movies will encounter initially with curiosity, then boredom, then frustration, and then outright anger. I admit, even though I consider myself more serious than most about studying film, this one was a trial. I’ve been watching it in bits and pieces for a couple of weeks—a necessity when the discs come one at a time from NetFlix and the film spans a full three DVDs.

Tarr’s style has been compared with that of Tarkovsky, and with good reason. This film takes the idea of a long take to ridonkulous levels, with some shots going on for ten minutes or more. In the full seven-plus hours of the movie, Tarr claims that there are only 150 different shots, and having seen the film, I don’t doubt that this is true. This is broken up at times with slow pans or tracking shots, but even these are a relative rarity for some long sequences.

The story concerns a failed collective farm in Hungary. The people are broke and broken, and spend their nights drinking, dancing, and stumbling around in a local bar. A conman they thought long dead returns and sells them on a dream of a new collective, a model farm, that will require their investment if they are to make it work. A bunch of them leave for the new place. And really, that’s the bulk of the film. Most of the time, people sit around drinking and waiting for something to happen, and it’s about as exciting to watch as it sounds like it would be.

But this film isn’t about excitement, and not all films should be. This is a meditation, perhaps on the failed Hungarian system or on the process of life itself. Certainly it’s bleak enough both in terms of how it is filmed and the story that transpires that it wouldn’t be difficult to assign this meaning to the film.

More than any other film, I’m reminded in parts of Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielmann, which couldn’t have been more of a trial for me had it been injected directly into my cerebral cortex. Tarr’s film has more happening, though, and is also in many ways an easier watch despite being twice the length. Many of the shots, while they seem eternal, are strikingly beautiful. While the film concerns itself in many ways with the banality of the existence of its characters, the ugliness of their environment, the terrible rainy weather, and human misery, there are a number of extended shots that are truly gorgeous.

Where Tarr loses the average viewer, and in many places lost me, is just how long he holds his camera in the same place without anything happening. We get close-ups of people that last for thirty seconds or a minute with no dialogue. Nothing happens. At times, I had to check to make sure the DVD hadn’t frozen, because nothing on the screen moved for half a minute, and just when I was getting ready to check, someone spoke or the camera twitched. Shots like this require intense patience both on the part of Tarr and on the part of the viewer, and this patience can be rewarded. These shots, for their lack of any action, are revealing in giving us genuine looks at the characters.

And yet, it could also easily be argued that there are far too many of these shots. Someone leaves a room, and the camera sits on the open door for upwards of a minute, an unchanging tableaux, until we are given a new shot. We watch people walk, camera in the face, with a background of unbroken gray clouds. At one point, a girl named Estike runs through the woods for what seems like a couple of miles, the camera tracking in front of her. In another scene, people sit around the bar while a man talks endlessly, repeating the same five or six lines over and over. Later, we watch people dance and act drunkenly for ten minutes or more while an accordionist plays the same few notes over and over. Tarr pulls no punches with shots like this—he opens the film with seven or eight minutes of cows walking in a paddock and a very slow tracking shot.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the film to watch comes in the middle, when Estike brutally tortures a cat. This may not sound like much, but this is painful to watch, and like every scene in this film, it continues far longer than it feels like it should to get the point across. Later, the girl spikes a bowl of milk with rat poison and forces the cat to drink it, saying over and over that she can do whatever she wants to the cat because she is stronger than the cat. Following this, the girl watches the drunken elders dance, then swallows the rat poison herself. It’s this sequence that caused the film to be at least temporarily banned in the U.K. despite Tarr’s assurance that there was a vet on hand the whole time, and his statement that the cat in question ended up as his personal pet.

Within the context of the film, we cover the same ground repeatedly. We see action from one perspective, then see the same action from another perspective later. The girl watches the dancers, for instance, and later, we watch the same scene from inside, catching glimpses of the girl standing in the rain.

Satantango was filmed to mimic the dance: six steps forward and six steps back. It’s a subtlety that is easily lost without being made aware of the fact, a statement true of many things in this film.

Is it good? Unquestionably, this is art film at one of its highest points. Tarr’s work is carefully crafted, smart, and unflinching. It’s also difficult to like. In other words, I’m impressed with the effort, the message, and the artistry here, but like many great works of art, it’s not something I want to spend a lot of time seeing. I went 43-plus years without sitting through this epic; I’ll happily go another 43-plus without doing it again.

Why to watch Satantango: This is art for art’s sake.
Why not to watch: A new definition of “long take.”


  1. I thoroughly enjoy your reviews. Your analysis is always rich with thought.

    After reading this review I had to look this film up. 7 hour and 12 minute running time? That has to be some kind of record for a single film.

  2. "I’ve been watching it in bits and pieces for a couple of weeks"

    Not sure why, but the above made me cackle.

  3. @Rick--Berlin Alexanderplatz runs 15 1/2 hours, which is the longest aside from art films like Douglas Gordon's 24-Hour Psycho. That one takes Hitchcock's original and slows it down to a couple of frames per second for a 24-hour running time. The ultimate leader is Cinematon with a run time of about 6 1/2 days.

    @Kevin--"bits and pieces" is less suggestive than "twig and berries" or "block and tackle" but more so than "whenever I had 15 minutes to watch a static shot."

  4. I'm impressed you've seen this one. It intimidates the eff out of me, now even more after reading your review - there's a scene of cat torturing? I honest to god cannot deal with that sort of thing on film, even if I know it's fake.

    Nice review. Honest. I appreciate that.

    1. It scared me, but not as much as some others. The ones that really worry me looking ahead are Audition, Funny Games, The Vanishing (I am intensely claustrophobic) and, oddly Terms of Endearment. I'm not kidding.

      I went through a phase where I really pushed to get as many of the long ones done as I could. Right now, I've watched everything longer than four hours, and I'm hoping to have everything longer than three done by the end of this year.

    2. Interesting approach... Something for me to consider, at least for the summer when I have MUCH more time to devote to film.

      Yeah. Audition scares me too.

    3. A lot of the long stuff isn't easy, but a lot of it is great. Shoah, for instance, is not an easy watch, but it's very rewarding.

      If you've never seen The Decalogue, I envy you that first watch. It's truly magnificent, and worth every minute of your time.

  5. I HAVEN'T seen The Decalogue, but I saw Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy for the first time about three months ago. I fell so deeply in love with them, it's unlike anything I've encountered in film. As such, I am eagerly anticipating watching both The Decalogue and The Double Life of Veronique. I'm almost holding off on watching them, at least for a little while, so as to carefully ration out the joy of seeing them for the first time.

    I have a review of his Three Colors trilogy as a whole that I have not yet posted because I keep going back to it and adding more to it. There is so much for me to talk about there!

    1. He's a director I didn't know going in, and once I started watching him, I couldn't stop. I still have The Double Life of Veronique, and like you, I'm saving it.

  6. Well, that was mostly a waste of time (the movie, not your review.) When a 7.5 hour movie opens with a 10 minute shot of cows meandering through a village you know the director is just coming right out and saying to us, "I'm going to be fucking with you for the next seven and a half hours."

    There's only two reasons to see this film - it's in the book or to say you did it. The very small minority of people who love to tear things to pieces to try to get at the heart of what the director *really* meant when, for instance, he had the character 10 degrees off the center of the frame in a shot, are the only ones who would truly enjoy this film.

    I visited the IMDB boards. As someone there pointed out, this movie is based on a long book, but they recommended you should read the book because it is much better than the movie AND you will probably finish reading the book before you would finish watching the movie.

    As I pointed out there, in the same amount of time it took to watch this movie a person could have watched Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Godfather, and City Lights back to back to back to back.

    And I don't care if they didn't actually go all the way and kill the cat; they still tortured the hell out of it then knocked it out with something.

    1. Yep. Much like Les Vampires, getting through this one is more or less a badge of honor--I did something really unpleasant and walked out on the other side. Andy Warhol's films seem to have that same sort of vibe to them--you do it so you can brag that you did it, not because there's any particular value in the act.

      There is some value in this film, but it's hard to see. It's even harder to see when your eyelids start drooping because nothing has happened for an eternity.

      This film is the definition of what I call a "sandwich" movie: there's enough time between lines of dialogue or important events to go make yourself a sandwich and not miss anything.

    2. "sandwich movie" is a great term. You should patent it. :-)

      When I'm going to write about it in my November Status post (this and Jeanne Dielman are going to tie for my worst movies of the month so far) I'm going to describe them as the kind of movies that the fast forward button was invented for. Not as catchy as "sandwich movie" I'll admit, but then I tend to use a lot of words to describe stuff. :-)

    3. Oh, don't get me started on Jeanne Dielman. Thrill as she stands in line for 10 minutes. Marvel when she shows up at a store two minutes early. I can't recall the last time I was that bored.

  7. I just finished the first of the three disks, and my god am I bored. I don't usually read reviews before I finish a film, but I had to see what you thought about this cure for insomnia.

    "At times, I had to check to make sure the DVD hadn’t frozen" -- Yep, did the same thing.

    I'm not one to shy away from long films, or artistic ones, but so far I don't see the merit in this one. Same goes for cows, while I don't dislike them, the eight minute plus opening sequence was a bit much. With a cut or two, i think that Tarr's editor could have halved that scene and lost nothing on the cutting room floor.

    I can't image any filmmaker thinking that these kinds of sequences would do anything but make their audience angry or very sleepy.

    I'm going to try and finish it tonight in one looooong sitting.

    1. I get it. I think it's an artistic statement, but it's not one I want to spend any more time with...ever.