The marathon “Satan’s Tango” is a magnum opus to end all magna opera, a dark, funny, apocalyptic allegory of the Hungarian psyche that stimulates, irritates, soothes and startles with blinding strokes of genius in equal turn. Seven-hour-plus pic represents an impossible marketing exercise on any commercial level, but with good word of mouth could become a cult item as a “film event” on the fest circuit. TV sales remain a possibility, though the film demands to be seen on the big screen to work its mesmeric magic.
At its packed Budapest world preem, as part of the 25th Hungarian Film Week, pic drew general nods for the startling quality of its vision and intensely cinematic style. Director Bela Tarr was still shooting only weeks before the unspooling, with the final print arriving wet from the labs.
Adapted from a novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, film started out several years ago as a regular-length project but expanded as Tarr became obsessed with the content. Production, on a reportedly high budget in Hungarian terms, was spread over two years (115 shooting days), with Tarr showing an uncompromising perfectionism.
Result shows in pic’s immaculate b&w compositions, a major feather in the hat of young cinematographer Gabor Medvigy, student of the famed Lajos Koltai, regular cameraman for Istvan Szabo.
Movie has a long-limbed, almost rondo construction, opening with a seven-minute take that introduces the rural setting and functions as a kind of overture. Thereafter, the film is divided into segments of various lengths (usually a half-hour or so), with chapter headings such as “The News That They Are Coming,””We, the Resurrected,””The Freeze,””Only Problems and Work.” Final section is titled “The Circle Is Completed.”
Setting for most of the action is an abandoned agricultural machinery plant in the vast Hungarian plain, where an assortment of deadbeats (including three couples and an alcoholic doctor) eke out a hopeless existence. Each is planning, or dreams of, some kind of escape, and the air is thick with betrayal and counter-betrayal.
Catalyst to events is the charismatic Irimias (read: Jeremiah), a former member of the community who’s in fact a small-time con man and former police informer. With a comic Romanian acolyte in tow, Irimias sweeps into town (in a sequence of Leone-ish bravura) and promises a newlife to those willing to chance an exodus to other parts.
Meanwhile, the liquor-soaked doctor, holed up in his Dickensian room before a rain-streaked window, laboriously catalogs the comings and goings of the characters in a collection of exercise books.
Final chapter — in which he returns to his room, admits “I’m confused,” and boards up his window-on-the-world till screen goes black — satisfyingly wraps up the pic in ironic style.
Set during a brief time span, the movie partly reruns the same events from different characters’ perspectives (such as the doctor’s nocturnal perambulation in search of alcohol) and partly goes down blind alleys that gloss over rather than advance the storyline (such as a long single take of two cops hammering out a fanciful report on the main characters at the local station).
Pic’s magic stems from the accumulation of its jigsaw pieces, which makes viewing at a single sitting de rigueur. (Budapest screening started late afternoon, with two intermissions.)
Auds familiar with Tarr’s 1987 “Damnation” will get a buzz of recognition out of the present item. Helmer’s liking for long takes, gliding tracking shots, striking play with foregrounds and backgrounds (plus apocalyptic use of incessant rain and mud) is on display here in spades. There’s also much dry Magyar humor to lighten events.
Some knowledge of Hungarian history is necessary to get the most out of the film, though its general theme — of a people riven by lack of self-confidence and internal feuding who are duped by a false messiah — is accessible enough. Animal lovers should steer clear of a graphic segment in which a village ragamuffin beats up on and then poisons her cat.
Performances are thoroughly lived-in, and tech credits tops in all departments, with special praise for Medvigy’s monochrome lensing and Mihaly Vig’s highly atmospheric, gently susurrating score. Film, which won a Special Award at the Magyar Film Week, is dedicated to the late Alf Bold, longtime co-worker with Ulrich Gregor, boss of the Berlin fest’s Forum section, in which pic has its international preem.