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Sátántangó
cast: Peter Berling, János Derzsi, Miklós B. Szekely, Erzsébet Gaál, and Putyi Horvath

director: Béla Tarr

419 minutes (15) 1994
Artificial Eye DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Gary Couzens
It sounds like a joke or the ultimate European art house film: black and white, Hungarian dialogue with subtitles, seven hours long, with a pace that goes beyond slow to the point where you have to find a new word for it. But ever since its showing at the 1994 Berlin festival, Béla Tarr's Sátántangó (or Satan's Tango in English) has had a monolithic reputation in world cinema circles, with critics such as Susan Sontag and Jonathan Rosenbaum hailing it as a masterpiece. If nothing else its reputation has been enhanced by the scarcity of cinema showings, for the obvious reason of its great length. Although bootleg videos have been in circulation, prior to this DVD release the film has had just two 35mm screenings in the UK, at the National Film Theatre during a Tarr retrospective in 2003.

Tarr, born in 1955, made his first feature in 1979, but his reputation is based on three films shot in black and white and co-written by the novelist László Krasznahorkai. Damnation and Werckmeister Harmonies are the first and last films of this loose trilogy, and due to their much more conventional length (just under two hours and two and a quarter respectively) are probably the best introductions to Tarr's work. Artificial Eye have released them as a two-disc DVD set.

Sátántangó is set on a collective farm in Hungary during the last years of Communism. The farm is sunk in mud and neglect and it's pissing down with rain outside. The men and women who live there are drowning their sorrows in alcohol and casual infidelity. Two of the men are planning to abscond with the collective's money. Then comes news that Irimiás (Mihály Vig, who also composed the music score) and Petrina (Putyi Horvath), both presumed dead, are on their way back to the farm. Irimiás seems to hold out hope that he can lead the people to a better life elsewhere. But is he what he seems?

The film is divided into 12 chapters. The first six (lasting roughly four hours) concentrate on individual characters, often replaying events from different perspectives. An old alcoholic doctor (Peter Berling) spies on his neighbours, runs out of drink and treks through the rain and mud to get some more. Eltike (Erika Bók), neglected by her parents, takes out her frustrations on a cat, eventually poisoning it, and then herself. (This is a disturbing sequence, played out over nearly half an hour, which did raise the question if Sátántangó could be released in the UK at all due to animal cruelty legislation. However the film has been passed uncut. It was a real cat, but it was drugged and asleep throughout much of the sequence and later woke up unharmed. Tarr adopted it as a pet.)

Tarr, like his compatriot Miklós Jancsó and the Greek, Theo Angelopoulos, is a master of the sequence shot: the long unbroken take, lasting up to 10 or 11 minutes, the maximum duration of a reel of 35mm film. Werckmeister Harmonies contains just 39 shots, while Sátántangó has around 150. Importantly the camera is moving as well, either horizontally, or plunging forward with the characters, or weaving around them. The effect of this is an often-overwhelming sense of three-dimensional space.

There are many virtuoso sequences in this film: the opening shot which follows a herd of cattle through the village, the dance scene at the halfway point which gives the film its title. Even shorter sequences stay in the mind: two men walking down a street as rubbish whirls around them; the morning sky brightening in real time through a window. (Gus Van Sant, in recent films such as Gerry and Elephant is an avowed disciple of Tarr's work.) Also of note is Gábor Medvigy's pin-sharp black and white camerawork and the use of sound, which adds to the oppressive atmosphere.

Sátántangó is a film which needs to be taken on its own terms or not at all. But like all fine directors, Tarr creates a world that is tangible, if overwhelming, for us to lose ourselves in for the time the film takes. If you let it be so, Sátántangó is an absorbing experience.

Artificial Eye's release of Sátántangó is released on three discs, each in a thin pack held inside a cardboard slipcase. The discs run 131:37, 119:28 and 169:51, ending at the original intermission points after chapters three and six. The DVD transfer is non-anamorphic, in the original ratio of 1.66:1 while the soundtrack is Dolby surround. English subtitles are optional, if your Hungarian is good enough. The only extra is on disc one, a Béla Tarr filmography.
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