Is Bela Tarr’s ‘Satantango’ a Quiet Masterpiece or Just Dull?

By  · Published on October 17th, 2013

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they find themselves at odds over a 7-hour Hungarian movie from the excessively patient Bela Tarr focused on a farming collective and the wacky exploits of its denizens.

In the #36 (tied) movie on the list, cows meander out of their barn for 9 minutes, then a group of scheming communards deal with the return of a charming, long-lost figure in different ways – in between extended tracking shots of the landscape and people walking from one place to another.

But why is it one of the best movies of all time?

Landon: So this is the first time to see Satantango (aka Satan’s Tango) for both of us. And while we’ve each seen Bela Tarr films before and had some idea of what to expect, I think we were each a bit intimidated by the prospect of this movie. So instead of intellectual inquiry, I want to start with raw experience. Tell me about what you went through watching this film.

Scott: Despair with fleeting moments of interest. You?

Landon: It was a strange cycle. At first I literally had trouble staying awake (this has happened with other Tarr films) while admiring the cinematography, then in the middle tango “steps” I was disgusted, distanced, and disinterested, but when Irimias arrived in the village, I was enthralled until the very end.

I didn’t expect the 2nd half of a 7-hour film to get to me.

Scott: Like Godot actually showing up.

Landon: Exactly

Scott: I’m glad you had a different experience because I need someone to explain to me why this film isn’t a giant waste with only a few flecks of worth to it.

Landon: Well, one problem with Tarr’s approach to slow cinema – as opposed to someone like Tarkovsky – is that it’s often very difficult to get lost in his pacing. When I watch a Tarkovsky film, I feel like I forget about space and time, I’m on another level. Tarr’s films are structured so repetitively, so cyclically, that you’re often very aware of the passage of time as it occurs. So first, yes, this is an excessively long film that feels like an excessively long film, and that in of itself is a frustrating experience. There were times during this film that I really despised Tarr for his indulgences, but there were others where I became mesmerized by it.

Scott: Right – and I wonder if this isn’t a great example of each viewer’s unique proclivities. Of true divisive subjectivity. Like taking a drug, if you’re able to be hypnotized by it, it’s a transcendent experience. If the drug doesn’t work on you, you’re left wondering what all the fuss is about. I just couldn’t get sucked in that way.

I also think that since it’s a rare example that casts off the typical language of film, we have trouble reaching for a grounding comparison. It would be easy to dismiss it, but maybe even easier to assume it’s amazing. Especially after investing nearly half a day on it.

Landon: Right, and I don’t think it’s either. Almost like a Haneke movie, to find this film an incredibly frustrating experience is not necessarily to condemn it. I don’t think he had in mind that viewers would be mesmerized for seven hours.

I hated, hated, hated him during steps 5 and 6, the little girl’s story and the tango party in the bar. But strangely enough, at points this felt like the most conventionally plotted of Tarr’s films that I’ve seen.

Scott: At the very least, the movie brings up a lot of questions about form.

Landon: This film dances, no – it tangoes, all over that line.

Scott: Boo.

Landon: It’s an interesting question. Whenever I asked myself, I then thought, well why don’t I ask this inverse question of more conventionally paced or more quickly paced films? Why is a quick pace not suspect?

And I know there are conventions as to why, but you’re right in that Bela Tarr is approaching the language of cinema differently – one that doesn’t assume a clear justification has to be behind these shots, that doesn’t assume cinema conveys information or even mood, then moves on. This is something that will come up I think in a far richer way when we watch Jeanne Dielman, but the process of waiting is not something we’re used to in films.

Scott: I’m extremely comfortable in that bias. My biggest issue with Satantango is that it represents the very worst of post-modernism. There’s no discernible skill that went into it besides owning a camera dolly, it’s a blank canvas that you can throw any sticky metaphor onto, and it’s just weird enough (with its 7 hour quirk) for otherwise smart people to worship it for fear of being ridiculed for not being “serious” about cinema.

It’s interesting in its experiment (and in eschewing the usual language), but I wonder if those things are good in and of themselves.

Landon: I get that reaction, and I don’t think any serious cinephile has an obligation to watch this film, or even see it. I thought this film was a worthwhile experience to have, yet I struggle to articulate the “why” in Tarr’s filmmaking, where Tarkovsky’s philosophy is very apparent and near and dear to me.

But there are two testimonies to my experience of this film that I have to respond to what you’ve said:

1) One thing I appreciate about this film is how anti-modern it is, how contemptuous it is for the tools of the medium. I liked seeing something a bit radical, and a rural Hungarian communal farm completely being taken advantage of as soon as their country turns to capitalism seems to undergird Tarr’s decisions in terms of the film’s themes and its settings…

Scott: That’s a sharp read.

Landon: 2) One can’t really have seen this film unless they’re completely honest about that experience. Anybody who claims to be enthralled by this film I deem suspect – but I also think that would be profoundly dishonest, even to what Tarr seems to be attempting to do. I was able to get lost in the second half of the film in part because it seemed shocking that the villagers would leave the farm after the world that had been built up until that point.

But I take your point regarding experimentation being good in of itself, because it’s so difficult to have a conversation about “the film itself” outside the experience of enduring it. Even though this is Tarr’s most recognized film, the only thing I knew going in was the length, which does stand at risk of trumping anything else.

Scott: Exactly. And I’m definitely not saying that people can’t have a genuine love for this movie. I’m saying that it’s the kind of film that tends to attract pretentious fakers.

Landon: I know we’re trying to avoid talking about the S&S voters, but it did make me realize what an enclosed cinephilic club this is. For this film to reach the top 50, that means a number of people within the voting group have seen it or claimed to see it. That’s a pretty exclusive club, if for no other reason than the fact that this film had such a difficult time being exhibited in the first place.

Scott: Which brings me back to wondering about the slow work of it. There are many slow burn films that I’ve marveled at, but almost everything here seemed wholly unnecessary at the level it was presented at. My typical defense of something like Oldboy or Love Exposure or 2001 or Solaris or (now) Andrei Rublev is that certain elements wouldn’t have had near their impact without the slower set up.

But with Satantango, I feel the opposite. Everything was muted after watching a guy walk for 10 minutes or listening to the wind blow for half an hour or any of the other cutting room floor fodder.

Landon: I know what you mean, and I had that experience more often than I didn’t. This is the 4th Tarr film I’ve seen, and I still struggle to understand what he’s attempting to accomplish, especially on the level of each individual film. I did a political reading of Satantango, but he seems to not exactly be a political filmmaker in his larger work. His post-Iron Curtain cinema from Hungary isn’t the same reflective stuff we’ve been getting out of, say, Romania with the films of Cristian Mungiu, who uses a slow style to different ends completely. The only Tarr film that makes sense to me is his last one, The Turin Horse, because it so successfully and despondently created a world of poverty so foreign to the life that anybody who would have access to the film experiences.

That being said, I was genuinely surprised that some shots in Satantango were not longer. I think I was preparing myself for the possibility that this might be a film with, like, 7 cuts in total. Furthermore, I think this is the only ’90s film on the list. Of the many places my mind went during this film, I kept reminding myself that this film exists in the same world where people were listening to Pearl Jam.

Scott: I was wondering why “Yellow Ledbetter” played over the credits.

But seriously, the critical response is the only thing that keeps me wondering if there’s more that I’m missing, but I’m always an inch away from writing Tarr off as a crappy filmmaker and being done. It’s also why I’m baffled by people who say how severe an experience they had with this because it felt like he kept the mundane mundane for it. Cat torture aside.

But there’s another great question – does the purely mundane have any place in cinema? Tarr’s films seem to be great at raising random questions but not at all good at answering them affirmatively.

Landon: During that typing/transcribing scene I thought to myself something similar. I was like, well, here we are.

I think the final sequence plays with that well. The doctor comes home from the hospital, and he goes about his routine of getting completely pissed. He doesn’t know while he engages in the mundane that the villagers have left, but we know. Then he drifts into existential panic. I liked it when Tarr played with the mundane like that. During other scenes, like what you said, he posed intriguing questions without any real answers.

Scott: And I’m unsure as to whether solely raising questions is inherently a good thing.

Landon: That being said, on a general scale, boredom is important, if only because it’s an experience that we attempt to avoid at all costs on a seemingly exponential scale these days.

Damn kids this days don’t watch their Hungarian snail-paced movies like they used to.

Scott: It’s true. They’ve gotta have Russian Ark playing on their iPad just to get through the bar sequence.

Ultimately, this film simply doesn’t belong on a Greatest Films list. Hands down. But it did achieve something amazing. It got me to look forward to 9 hours of Shoah. Presumably something happens in it.

Landon: I think the only way to end a discussion like this is to board up the windows and sit in darkness for a little while.

“The Turkish are coming The Turkish are coming The Turkish are coming The Turkish are coming…”

Next Time: Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah

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