Sátantángó (Hungarian, 1994) – An Artistic attempt in Capturing Time
There are serious avant-garde films we always hear and read about. For art house cinephiles neither Sátantángó nor Béla Tarr need introduction. This 430 minute masterpiece is my first rendezvous with Tarr. It was quite hard to get into the pace of the work initially, to be frank. But as time flew by the film takes you in and you sink into the frames and lose yourself. Satantango is one of the rarest cinematic experiences which offer you to live inside every frame. Often Tarr’s work is compared to the Andrei Tarkovsky for the similarities in the meditative pace in the making. Their style of filmmaking has many similarities from letting the silence dominating the frame to artistic attempts of capturing time or freezing it.
The film Satantango is besed on the novel of the same name written by Laszlo Krasznahorkai who had been supplying the stories to Tarr ever since the ‘Damnation’ in 1988. In one of his interviews Tarr himself said,
‘We have a story but I think the story is only a little part of the whole movie’,
while asked about the film. The story tells the fall of a collective farm in a remote Hungarian countryside after the fall of communism. Everyone is eager to depart and share the money but the arrival of charismatic Irimiás, who with his decorative speech has the ability to convince anyone to abide with him, changes their plans utterly.
The film is divided into twelve chapters that don’t necessarily follow proper chronological order. The opening seen showing a herd of cows moving around the muddy lanes of the village defines the terrain and the shot extends for a surprising 450 seconds. The entire film for its length of over seven hours is roughly sequenced with just 150 shots. The entire movie is shot in high key black and white, captures the ever raining village with all its life without missing a single detail.
Commonly films show much interest in capturing the characters rather than the ambience where the story happens. Many filmmakers consider the ambience as nothing more than the backdrop for their story. Very few filmmakers are as keen as Tarr in capturing the ambience as much as his characters. Tarr’s film structure is interested in exploring the ways human beings connect themselves with their living places. In the art of cinema the sense of time what I would like to call the ‘filmatic time’ often is manipulated on requirement. With editing we might compress the narrative time to encompass thousands of year s within the successive frames. Or we can slow down the real time on screen.
Tarr attempts neither of these. Through the camera of Gábor Medvigy (his cinematographer, another constant collaborator of Tarr’s works) his artistic aspiration is to unite the narrative time with the real time of what’s progressing on screen. The camera movement attempts to capture the soul of everything that is within its frame. Its very presence often resembles the presence of an omniscient spectator silently but meticulously observing the happenings.
The film suspends BGM almost throughout, which again owes to its prime intention of recreating realism on screen. For every sound mixing aspirant Satantango is an encyclopedia. I’ve been watching serious cinema nearly for a decade. But to date this has the best sound mixing ever. Watching this film with your headphones will teleport you to the real location. All Credits to György Kovács. From rubbing of hands to sipping fruit brandy, from approaching footsteps to reproaching footsteps, every single and miniscule detail is carefully re-created.
The film experiments on capturing time, as if time itself is a character. The camera remains silent and stationary just observing the props in the frame even after the characters have moved away from the frame. It attempts on canning the passing time in those moments. The physical movements especially walking is captured elaborately. The frame remains glued to the characters till they walk toward the horizon, shrinking into a dot. There are several painstaking tracking shots that follow the walking characters for several minutes. The commuting characters inside the scene almost take the same time, as much as they will in reality, to reach their destinations within the film.
Satantango is a rare cinematic experience, you’ll fall in love with, and it claims nothing but a little patience from you.