The behemothic, almost impossible to see, hardcore-critic-exalted art film legends keep coming at us on DVD will there be any Holy Grails left? but it’s likely that no movie has been awaited as intensely and with as high expectations as BÃ©la Tarr’s “Satantango” (1994). Finally, after literally years of rumors and broken promises and restoration troubles, Facets has brought this cathedral of a movie to disc, and we can all explore its frontiers at will. Not that we all will “Satantango” is one of those films that, because of its size (nearly seven hours), form (long-take extremism) and weighty thrust (ambiguous Hungarian existentialism), has always worn the mantle of being a cinephiles’ test case, an experience that separates the apostles from the pretenders. Maybe Tarr made it with that in mind by its very nature, the film intends to be an immersive trial. You don’t just watch “Satantango” you live it, your biorhythms adjust to it, and the upshot is not what you’d call a walk on the bright side of the street.
That’s not to imply that Tarr’s movie is dull or even minimalist it’s one of the richest films I’ve ever seen, brimming with visual courage, narrative duplicity, stark moody beauty, puzzles, satire, lurking drama, off-screen mysteries, and inexhaustible metaphoric readings. The setting is as important as the story, and in the end, more informative: a tiny collective-farming village somewhere in the endless Hungarian flatlands, so constantly beset by driving rain that the ground is endless mud, the buildings are rotten, and the outside world is permanently kept at bay by the overflowing bogs and washed-out roads. Tarr patrols this landscape so thoroughly following his actors on interminable slogs, or tracing the wanderings of farm animals looking for food that by the end of the film you feel as if you’ve just finished a six-month sentence on the worst work farm in the world. What happens here isn’t, ironically, terribly clear: As the farm’s desolate and soul-wasted denizens skulk aimlessly about in the Communist-era ramshackle digs, a previous farm inhabitant, rumored to have died, is now said to be returning in a Messiah-like fashion. Once he does, walking in from the rainy wasteland, he is both considered suspect and accepted as a kind of savior; he cons the wary collective to hand him their savings in the service of some plot that will release them from their dire landscape. Meanwhile, old hostilities arise, a teenage girl lives out a perhaps universal scenario of cruelty (to a cat) and victimhood, and the dead dreams of Communism and the new fantasies of wealth keep getting floated like lead balloons in the grim kitchens and bars and barns that alone disrupt a relentless horizon. Working in twelve ill-defined chapters (like a tango six forward, six back), the film is so elusive about its narrative you can still be not sure by its end which large chunks of the film uncoiled in film-time simultaneously with other chunks.
Whew. Shot in profound and serotonin-depleting black and white, “Satantango” forces you to take long walks in its particular hell, and Tarr’s fluency with moving-camera compositions (and with the behavior of nature and animals) seems at the same time to be almost superhuman. I don’t seen any reason not to consider the film (co-written by novelist LÃ¡szlÃ³ Krasznahorkai) a folly-of-man parable on the devastation of Communism followed by the ethical rot brought on by capitalism, even if Tarr has preferred to consider the film’s agenda to be “cosmic.” (Such a reading would, after all, suggest that the Messiah complex that constructed the Christ story also created the idolatry around Lenin and the free market-capitalist cult figure of your choice.) But Tarr’s movie is a spectacle, too, even as seen on DVD (you are forbidden to touch your remote), in ways that almost define film as an art form. Holding the ground of the great plan sequence tradition forming Kalatozov to JancsÃ³ to Tarkovsky to Angelopoulos, Tarr sets a high bar here for the use of motion and off-screen space, not settling for filling the frame and carrying us along with story, but managing instead to invoke a separate world.
There is also, once again, the issue of extreme length. Cinephiles fall to their knees for gigantic auteurist films for a reason: They are not efficiently manufactured and absorbed artworks so much as life events, subject to accident, ambiguity, boredom, anticipation, empathy, resentment, dissipation, meditation, epiphany. Lifestuff accumulates with the hours, so we are forced to regard the movie as a real-time event that may, indeed, have no end. (Once a movie passes the 200-minute mark, it might as well not have an ending, which was in effect the point of time-bandits Andy Warhol and Jacques Rivette.) In any case, the culmination of a four-or-more-hour film cannot help but have cataclysmic impact compared to a climax arriving after an orthodox hour-and-a-half. It’s an aesthetic of abandon, not concision. Extraordinary length requires complete surrender established narrative parameters are rendered impotent and viewers’ expectations are irrelevant. One of cinema’s great and secret subjects is the drift of time, despite the fact that ordinary film syntax has always worked to sublimate and abbreviate it for brisk entertainment purposes. Time is the long movie’s black box, a silent, naturally occurring entropic action that impresses upon us as ordeal memory, as overwhelming love and fear, as an unshakable reality. Films like “Satantango” may not necessarily change your life, but they cannot help but become a part of it once they are experienced. What more could we want from a movie?
After all that vital expenditure of brainwork, will, patience and attention, you might see yourself as deserving of Jeffrey Lau’s “Eagle Shooting Heroes” (1993), a Hong Kong self-parody that’s as utterly goofy and bubbly and schticky as any Keystone Kops two-reeler, but packed with ordinarily stoic stars (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Leslie Cheung, Jacky Cheung, Tony Leung Ka Fai, etc.) making ridiculous hay of their screen personas and the entire wuxia pian genre. The story is typical genre hooey (based upon the same novel as producer Wong Kar-wai’s “Ashes of Time,” though you’d never know it), but the Sammo Hung-choreographed action is hectic, free-flying craziness, in the way real martial arts epics were before the advent of digital imagery. It’s a plan I’ve tested for you: Follow up the unforgettable seven-course banquet dinner of deeply resonant goulash with a fruity-gingery umbrella drink, and relax.
[Photos: “Satantango,” Facets, 1994; “Eagle Shooting Heroes,” Kino, 1993]
“Satantango” (Facets) and “Eagle Shooting Heroes” (Kino Video) are now available on DVD.