Seven and a half hours, y'all. That's how long Bela Tarr's magnum opus, Satantango, is. Unfortunately for my film buff cred, I can't say that I watched it all in one sitting, the way Tarr intended it. But you know what? That's impossible, or for people who don't have jobs/friends/lives. Unless you're a film critic. Watching it in three sittings is tasking enough.
I'm not complaining. I'm glad that I finally watched this thing. It has all the brutal nihilism I was expecting from Tarr after having watched his awesome and final (oh so final) film, The Turin Horse, itself not a slouch at two and a half hours. Imagine my consternation when I find out that Tarr's longest film is among the top fifty of the 2012 Sight & Sound poll. Sometimes critics just want to seem really smart by having a long, difficult film on their personal top ten.
Although there is no questioning the greatness of the film, how great of an experience you have while watching it is another, completely separate topic for discussion. This is not the sort of movie about which you want to break out in rapturous praise because of this beautiful moment and that transcendent image. Above all else, watching Satantango is an experience, one that is unlike any other while watching a movie. Perhaps this is what makes it so great. That it's icy to the touch and utterly miserable is simply a side effect.
In the broadest of strokes, Satantango is about a remote Hungarian village in the mid 1990s, which is when the film was made. The villagers there are farmers, for the most part, although the bleak weather and utter poverty of their situation has thrust them all into money-grubbing despair. They live in abject houses through which the ever-blowing wind whistles. Their plots of land have all been reduced to mud, and their livestock trudges slowly through the muck, searching for grass. The adults and even some of the older kids are alcoholics, leaving the small children to fend for themselves and while away the days (school does not appear to be in session). And although the film was released in 1994 and appears to be set then, you wouldn't know it by the backwater trappings of this grim town.
So why watch this movie? What is to be gained from looking at unhappy people leading unhappy lives? Not a lot happens, plot-wise, in the film. What does happen seems anecdotal, at best: Tarr has a tendency to slowly move the camera from focusing on a conversation between characters in order to stare at a wall or an empty room, like a dodgy camera in a video game, the sounds of the characters' voices fading away. Nor does Tarr seem to be interested in providing an anthropological study of the people and their customs. The closest we get is a desperate scene in which severely drunken and lustful men and women dance wildly to an endlessly repeated accordion tune in a single, ten-minute-long take.
One of those takes is how Tarr begins his film. That first shot is an excellent litmus test for the audience: if you're not on board with it, you won't be for the rest of the film. In this shot, Tarr points the camera at a herd of cows grazing in a swampy field as gale-force winds blow across the desolate landscape and run-down buildings. The cows occasionally moo at one another and wander back and forth. Eventually, the herd begins to move from the field further into the village; the camera tracks them steadily while they do so, dollying behind houses and sheds until the cows are back in view. The scene ends with the cows shuffling out of view in the distance. There is no dialogue, narration or context. Again, this shot is all in one, and lasts roughly eight minutes long. And in black and white.
Are you into this? Scratch that: are you into this for 442 more minutes? If so, then see Satantango. It's a masterpiece.