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The surreal, trance-inducing dread of “Sátántangó”

Saturday, February 1, 4070 Vilas Hall, 1 p.m., free. Info

Distilling one of the most sprawling theatrical films of the twentieth century is inevitably a fool’s errand, but if one were to scout for a concise tag and description of retired auteur Béla Tarr’s noir-drenched Expressionist filmmaking, renowned critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has called it, “Andrei Tarkovsky without the religion.” In his seven-hour magnum opus, Sátántangó [Satan’s Tango] (1994), adapted from the novel of the same name by László Krasznahorkai and split into twelve sections (complementing the tango’s six forward and backward movements), Tarr constructs character portraits of desolate Hungarian villagers like surreal black-and-white still-lifes. The cumulative effect of its extended takes, including a masterful eight-minute opening tracking shot, aided by cinematographer Gábor Medvigy’s methodical pan, and scored by the chilling reverberance of distant bells, simultaneously invites viewers to absorb every minute detail and induces a state of trance.

But rather than gaze unto the divine everlasting like Tarkovsky envisioned in his works, Tarr keeps his films grounded in the earthly and profane. The endless traversal of sodden landscapes is as arduous as it is aimless, as if the characters, like the drunken doctor (Peter Berling), are stuck in the muck of purgatory. Tarr’s commentary on contemporary rural life in his home country extends beyond the vagueness of the film’s vagabonds and “slow cinema” aesthetics, however, as he casts his own composer, Mihály Víg, into the proceedings as principal profiteer and false prophet Irimias, who carries with him direct allusions to Eastern Europe’s fall of Communism and creep of Capitalism. From his spectral, mythic appearance, Irimias seems to be the blackened heart of the film’s insular universe, swindling the townspeople’s money in exchange for the promise of a better society. He publicly seeks a model farm to “bind this tiny group of the dispossessed together” but, in actuality, plans to literally decimate it.

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Delving much further into the film would ruin its intended invocations and indelible, otherworldly visages, but it would be an incomplete assessment without the catalyst for Irimias’ scheme in the form of young Estike (Erika Bók), who is perhaps most spiteful and tragic for her behavior towards a particular cat in Sátántangó‘s most brutal on-screen representation of violence. In this sequence, Tarr establishes parallels between oppressors and the persecuted, empowered and powerless, as with Irimias’ desire for self-ruination in the film’s collectively doom-laden crawl. If one can stomach the tortuous scenes of torture, its revelrous tango dances in the pub are not only a necessary reprieve but all the more absurd (and entertaining). Considering its severity and general bleakness, it’s equally intimidating and inspiring that Sátántangó has withstood as a singular film entry after 25 years; and it serves as the occasion for this Cinematheque presentation in a new 4K restoration (with a short intermission and 90-minute dinner break at 5:30). Tarr’s mammoth presence in world cinema is even still proliferating in his filmmaking workshops and mentoring, as we have seen in the framing of one of 2019’s most acclaimed epics, An Elephant Sitting Still (dir. Hu Bo).

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