Bells echo from a tower that doesn’t exist. The bellowing and snorting of cattle reverberates from the inside of a factory. It starts with one of many dirty, consumerist livestock, as they begin to pour from the opened gates of the dilapidated, crumbling building like blood seeping from a wound. They mingle with the outside world in the way that same wound’s blood might wisp about and spread after dripping into a glass of milk. Moaning, searching, the cattle skitter about slowly but surely, some attempting to graze, some mounting one another in excitement. Around them is a barren, sodden environment of muddy, wet road. There doesn’t seem to be a blade of grass in sight. The piercing cold, grey skies have eliminated any and all greenery. The trees are bare, coated only in wet, freezing rain. The cattle continue to roam, further and further away, until finally they turn a corner and disappear. The circle closes.
Satantango was shot in the anemic fields of Hortobágy directly after János Kádár, the longtime communist leader of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, had finally stepped down. Béla Tarr returned to his homeland to begin working on the film, which he had been planning for years prior. The quickly crumbling infrastructure of Eastern European communism sets the stage for an otherwise languid, slow-paced affair.
This is a film, first and foremost, about time and its relation to humanity. Whether it’s about how time slowly chips away at us, or how we slowly chip away at it, I’m not sure, but Tarr meticulously pieces together this constricting, plodding experience with the confidence and expertise only a cynically depraved Hungarian of his stature can. Scenes play out in full, tinged with harsh, bleak environs, creating a completely realized atmosphere of existential disquietude. The camera is always lingering, always present, roaming about the lives of the villagers at the heart of the narrative, coercing the audience into a similar struggle of existence. We are constantly both moving and staying stagnant, all at the behest of our coercive god-like auteur. We end up much like the characters, facing an indifferent, harsh reality, merely trying to scrape out a meaningful existence amidst an ever-shifting matrix of influence.
Watching a movie at this length, a monolithic 432 minutes, both exhausts and exhilarates. It promotes a feeling of invincibility, as if you’ll never need to watch another movie again, or that you can watch literally any movie ever now… which is extra ironic, given the lack of invincibility embedded within the subtext. Either way, Béla Tarr has made me stronger.
Tyler Harris is a film critic, English teacher, and former theater manager from Louisville, Kentucky. His passionate love for cinema keeps him in tune with his writing.