Sátántangó (1994, Bela Tarr)

I’ll probably remember the feeling of Satantango, the length of it, the way it moves and the way it looks, a lot longer than I’ll remember the plot and characters. So here:

The money from the harvest has come in. Mr. Schmidt is planning to run off with Mr. Kraner and their wives instead of splitting fairly eight ways. Futaki, sleeping with Mrs. Schmidt, finds out and wants in. The doctor watches all this from his room getting drunk on fruit brandy. But the news is that Irimias and Petrina, long thought dead, are approaching town.

At the bar, Mr. and Mrs. Halics frolic with the innkeeper and a talkative Kelemen (“Irimias hugged me and the waitresses jumped like grasshoppers and I was plodding and plodding and plodding”) while the Doctor fails to make the long walk in the cold rain to get more brandy, the town prostitutes have no customers, and a young neglected girl kills her cat then herself.

Irimias shows up at the funeral and rebukes everyone, tells them he will help them start a new life with meaning and honor if they give up all their cash. They abandon the town and head for a crumbling manor, but Irimias shows up soon and says the time is not yet right, that they must scatter and live quietly until attitudes shift enough that they can begin this new life. Irimias fiddles around trying to get lots of gunpowder, finally submits some kind of report to the police captain informing on the former townsfolk, whom he clearly detests. The doctor, alone at home after a hospital visit, boards up his windows.

Simply amazing to sit in a dark theater for eight hours, surrounded by this movie. Time expands and contracts, bends and warps, loops back upon itself. The black-and-white cinematography, the scattered diehard audience, the closeness to the screen, the jitters and scratches and cuts in the film, the swing between almost inaudible dialogue and ear-splitting bell-ringing, the middle-of-the-night drive home from Nashville… the most perfectly realized cinema experience I’ve had for years. A true cinephile/cult film. Seeing it at home on video over the course of a few nights was to study the movie, to follows the story and see what the movie might look and sound like… it was a preview. Seeing it in Nashville is to be part of something, to feel like there’s a point to cinema besides my own living-room amusement. The movie gives hope, if not to the dismal and defeated small-town Hungarian people, then at least to me.