Magnificent Seven

Bela Tarr, Sátántángo (Satan's Tango), 1994, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 405 minutes.

While hardly the first auteur to favor inordinately lengthy black-and-white shots of dour figures in rain-sodden locales, Bela Tarr nevertheless took this aesthetic to a new extreme in Sátántángo (1994). His is a cinema dominated by such an air of inertia that the flow of time seems to halt altogether. At various junctures in the masterpiece that earned the Hungarian filmmaker awestruck admiration and a certain level of infamy, viewers might feel stuck in the same boggy ground that stymies the characters, grim-faced members of a collective farming community located at what appears to be the edge of the earth.

Of course, viewers are permitted to escape—but only after seven hours. Sátántángo’s length has made it daunting for even the hardiest cinephiles. Due to the inevitable scarcity of screenings and the lack of a decent DVD edition (a 2006 UK set by Artificial Eye suffered from a subpar transfer), the film is better known than seen.

One surprise awaiting those who dig deep into Facets’s long-delayed but beautifully packaged four-disc set is that Tarr’s slow-motion epic is less a tragedy than the very blackest of black comedies. In this adaptation of the novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai (who wrote the script with Tarr), the hopeless farmers fall prey to the machinations of a devilish con man, though they’re more than capable of creating their own miseries. Certainly, the drunken doctor whose mutterings and fumblings fill much of an hour is his own worst enemy, as is the disturbed young girl whose roughhousing with a very unlucky cat makes for the film’s most discomfiting scenes.

It may sound absurd to say that a seven-hour movie has hardly a wasted moment—as famously insisted by Susan Sontag—but Tarr’s minimalism has maximum impact, especially when the film's satiric nature becomes more prominent in the final hour. Equally astonishing is Gabor Medvigy’s cinematography, preserved here after a restoration job that involved over five hundred thousand fixes. Facets spreads the film itself over three discs. The fourth presents supplemental material, including Tarr’s 1982 version of Macbeth for Hungarian television (rendered in two shots), a 1995 documentary in which Tarr and actor-composer Mihaly Vig revisit the Sátántángo shooting locations, a 2003 short for an omnibus film, and a featurette on the restoration. Since the demands of the film are now mitigated by the necessity of breaks (if only to change the discs), more viewers should discover that Tarr’s journey is its own reward.

Sátántángo is now available on DVD from Facets Video.