Goaded on by curiosity, I saw SATANTANGO at the Pacific Film Archive several years ago. Critics gushed that SATANTANGO was without parallel - but two hours into the movie, I was less than impressed. Very little plot. Black and gray photography. Segments that went on seemingly forever, with no clear point. Much of the audience filed out early, and I left early, too. Was the director, Bela Tarr, trying to make the film an endurance contest?
More recently, I consulted the Internet Movie Database to see what was written about SATANTANGO. The cumulative rating of 8.5 of 10 was impressive, as were the write-ups. "A stunning experience," says one viewer. "Biggest cinematic experience in history," says another. The kudos go on and on. But if you scroll down the database, you'll also find the negative reviews. "Self- indulgent, annoying," one writer says. One of the more measured responses is, "I do not regret that I saw this movie, but I certainly to not think it was a day well-spent" - after giving the film a 1 of 10 rating.
So, I decided to see the film again - this time on DVD - to determine if my initial dismissal at the PFA was warranted. And I learned how to appreciate a different kind of movie - and even come to enjoy it. My hints to a naive viewer:
- Calibrate your attention span. The individual takes of SATANTANGO are unusually long; the first scene, set outside a pen for steers and chickens, lasts over eight minutes, with no cuts. Just a single tracking shot. This happens through the entire film; in fact, the long takes and slow tracking shots give the film its rhythm and style. If you go into SATANTANGO expecting a film paced to contemporary standards, you'll be disappointed. If you can, take a few breaks between segments - and ask questions.
- Learn about recent European history. It's possible to enjoy SATANTANGO on its own merits, but understanding recent history helps greatly. The film dramatizes the economic depression that gripped the break-up of the Soviet blok, and things gone very bad, indeed. There's crumbling infrastructure everywhere. People struggle to get by, just barely, by depending on agricultural collectives (like the one depicted in SATANTANGO). This gray, depressing worldview would eventually engulf the region.
- Structure, structure, structure. The key to appreciating SATANTANGO lies in understanding the film's structure. Another reviewer here aptly mentioned Akira Kurosawa's RASHOMON, wherein the film's narrative is defined by a single event - told in entirely different ways by the main characters. SATANTANGO uses a similar technique; several characters experience the same segment of time from different points of view. The eight-minute "preface" introduces us to the collective itself - where the barebones infrastructure is shown. From here, each segment of the film is separated by an inter-title; when a new segment starts, we see the same action - from a new character's POV. But nearly every segment involves leaving this wet, cold, impoverished piece of hell - or try to exploit it.
- Dance "the Satantango." The musical segments can open the way to appreciating and even enjoying SATANTANGO. Music is important for Tarr, and the repeating figures of dance are a metaphor. The tango is a repeating dance that abides by the rule, "one step forward, two steps back." It's reflected in the lives of the characters, who take one step forward in their lives, but always end up two steps back. The "chapters" of the film don't move forward like a typical narrative work; it repeats the same segment of time, over and over again. If you're frustrated by the fact that the movie seems static - that's the point. SATANTANGO is a story that can't move forward; it repeats the same familiar song, over and over - until a development determines a new course of action for the characters.
I didn't enjoy SATANTANGO when I saw it the first time, but I've since become a fan. The investment of time may seem extreme to some, but it's more than worthwhile.