A Dance to the Music of Time

By Gareth Evans

satantango-bela-tarr.jpgSátántango, 1994

Béla Tarr’s 1994 epic Sátántango offers one of cinema’s most intense and rewarding experiences

“Devastating, enthralling for every minute of its seven hours. I’d be glad to see it every year for the rest of my life.” The late Susan Sontag on Sátántango. She knew what she liked, and Hungarian film-maker Béla Tarr was one of the artists she most advocated in the last years of her time on Earth, seeing him as one of the great directors of European cinema, working the rich, deep, vastly undervalued celluloid seam of moral, political and spiritual enquiry alongside those like Dreyer, Bresson, Tarkovsky and Kieslowski. She wasn’t alone. Until its release this year on dvd, those very few who had seen this monumental, fully envisioned work have tended towards similarly epiphanic language.

Tarr’s most ambitious film to date is structured in twelve chapters – it’s a monochrome adaptation from the novel by László Krasznahorkai – and the narrative movement follows the titular dance steps, forward and back around pivotal scenes, viewed in cumulation from multiple perspectives. It opens to arguments and planned betrayals over the year’s wages for a failing collective farm – with these tense interactions noted by an alcoholic doctor who records all movement in the village yard. The film then shifts into a larger frame with the reappearance of a member assumed dead, a quasi-messianic leader who appropriates the disputed wages. He promises a utopian future in an abandoned manor house but appears to be in collaboration with the local authorities as an informant on the uncommitted settlement.

At once allegorical and historically precise, an anti-authoritarian satire and a metaphysical treatise, Sátántango might well be the great film of entropy. A soundscape of weary accordion and resounding bells balances the sacred and profane spheres of collapse. It’s certainly one of the key pictures of walking, of endless solitary pacing and group trudges across the rain-sodden Hungarian plain, while the potent deployment of animals – cattle, pigs, wild horses in an empty town square, a disturbing scene involving a barn cat – works to signify an amoral, natural innocence in a society bereft of the core parameters of trust and loyalty.

Formally in dynamic tension between the claustrophobic intimacy of Tarr’s early influence Cassavetes and the rigorously choreographed grace of Tarkovsky and Jancsco, it’s a startling and apocalyptic work that builds to a powerfully rhythmic climax of breakdown and complete withdrawal. By operating so profoundly in time, and by creating a space and sense of mobility within that time which unite its formal and thematic concerns so powerfully, Sátántango exerts an uncanny spell on the viewing eye. The devil may always have the best tunes; on the basis of this singular experience, he has many of the best films as well.

Sátántango is released on dvd by Artificial Eye (www.artificial-eye.com). Tarr’s new film The Man from London will be released in the UK in the near future.