1994, Movies

Sátántangó (1994, Béla Tarr)

Since I re-ordered my list of films to watch, to prioritize critical opinion, I’ve been watching a lot of extremely long films. I think these types of films are critically celebrated for at least two reasons:

  • There’s a self-selecting group who watch these types of movies: only certain types of people will sit through a 7-12 hour film, and most of those people are the kind who are inclined to like said long films;
  • There’s something extremely impressive about a long film made either before it was acceptable or easy to tell such long stories on television or who have committed to telling such long stories in the “film” mould; when you a commit to watching one of these filmmakers as an audience, you are sort of worn down by the sheer ambition of the thing and it’s hard to view a completed 7-12 hour film as “bad” given the effort and time involved. (I’m sure there are unwatchable movies of this length out there somewhere, though.)

This one is 7 hours and 19 minutes. It’s an adaptions of an apparently extremely dense Hungarian novel. The director claims there are only about 150 hots in the film, that’s roughly 3 minutes per shot. Many shots in most films last seconds. That should give you some idea of the style of this black and white, extremely deliberately-paced film. They seem to want it unfold at the pace of life, or even slower than real life. Like most of these epic-length films I’ve watched recently, this is divided into parts or chapters. However, the intent does seem to be to watch the whole thing in one go. (I did not, of course.)

I think a lot of people assume that really long films don’t have a lot of plot. I’m sure there are some that don’t – especially any non-narrative “films” that are closer to performance art – but some of the ones I’ve been watching lately have, if anything, a surfeit of plot. This one is actually closer to what a lot of people might expect – I think it’s possible to imagine a 3 or 4 hour version of this movie with basically none of the plot excised. (Stylistically, it would be so unbelievably different as to be unrecognizable, though.) But so much of the appeal of this film is in its extremely long takes. And it really is hard to imagine this movie without those takes. (The one exception being the main dancing scene which is interminable – on purpose, I get it but it’s still interminable.)

I haven’t read the novel, obviously. It’s apparently quite difficult. But most literary and poetic devices – especially modern and post-modern ones – can’t translate exactly to film and television. Tarr seems to have recognized this as, though the film apparently follows the organization of the novel and the scenes in the novel – the thing is mostly improvised wen it comes to dialogue and character movements. So my guess is that the result is very, very different than the novel, but it is just a guess.

So, you’re wondering, is it worth it?

As usual, my answer is a qualified yes.

This is a remarkable film, in its pace, in its sense of place, and in how it seems to unfold almost at the pace of life. I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it.

But it’s extremely long and it’s fair to ask whether the feelings it conjures up couldn’t have been conjured in a conventional-length film. I understand there is something in the his kind of experience that cannot be captured in a conventional film but I’m just not sure how much weight to put on that experience.


The cat abuse chapter is a little much but apparently the cat was fine.

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