By MANOHLA DARGIS
January 11, 2006
Born in 1955, Mr. Tarr has built a reputation among dedicated cinephiles, particularly those lucky enough to travel the international festival circuit, where for the last few decades he has been a favorite if irregular fixture. Among his champions was Susan Sontag <http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/filmography.html?p_id=66899&inline=nyt-per>, who included him in her short 1995 lament about the state of the art, "A Century of Cinema." As the film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, Mr. Tarr's name was not included in a later version of this essay published in The New York Times Magazine. The omission not only further marginalized an already commercially marginalized artist, but also strengthened Sontag's pessimistic argument that cinema was a "decadent" art in the midst of an "ignominious, irreversible decline."
That's too bad; Mr. Tarr's work already presents its own formidable hurdles. Based on a novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, "Satantango" traces the fate of a small, isolated community that attaches itself to a mysterious messiahlike figure of dubious character. The opening scene, which seems calculated to weed out fainthearted viewers, tracks a herd of cows as they meanderingly exit a barn and enter the muddy yard of the near-desolate village, with its cracked building walls and prodigiously strewn trash. As he does throughout the film, Mr. Tarr shoots this luxuriantly paced scene in long shot, using his beautiful framing and richly gradated black-and-white tones to find beauty in every miserable and mundane corner.
In time, we meet the town's other slow-moving inhabitants - men, women and, notoriously, a young girl - none of whom appear more evolved than the wandering cows. The film is divided into 12 chapters and replicates, Mr. Tarr has explained, the structure of a tango used by the novel: six steps forward, six steps back. (The title translates as "Satan's Tango.") In more immediate terms, the film unfolds as a series of extended, occasionally overlapping set pieces that underscore the townspeople's ritualistic lack of forward motion. The first time we watch an alcohol-soaked barroom dance alongside an outsider looking in, the scene seems merely ridiculous; later, after that character commits suicide and we return to the bar a second time, the revel has turned into a dance of the damned.
In an interview in the online journal Kinoeye, Mr. Tarr explained his predilection for long takes: "The people of this generation know information-cut, information-cut, information-cut. They can follow the logic of it, the logic of the story, but they don't follow the logic of life." In "Satantango," life is beautiful and grotesque by turns, and never less than mesmerizing. In this grubby corner of the universe, men and women steal from one another, spy on their neighbors, walk (a lot) and drink themselves into oblivion, while a lost, lonely child tortures her cat, then lies in the weeds to wait for deliverance. (Animal lovers beware: although Mr. Tarr claimed in a 2001 interview that the cat was not harmed during the film and was now living with him, it is clearly in distress.)
"Satantango" certainly demands time, but the story - which can be read as an allegory for the collapse of Communism and the false promise of capitalism - is relatively straightforward, with little (at least as far as I can tell) of the intertextual complication of, say, one of Jean-Luc Godard's <http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/filmography.html?p_id=91804&inline=nyt-per> works. Indeed, the film is filled with long passages that have relatively little dialogue, which forces you to play close attention to Mr. Tarr's brilliant sound design - to the ominous buzzing of a fly, a fat man's rhythmic wheezing and the syncopated sounds of three men climbing a staircase. Plans are apparently afoot to bring the film to DVD, but as with Mr. Tarr's gorgeous long takes, these sounds of life are best appreciated in a theater like that at MoMA, where the sacred contract between film and filmgoer has yet to be broken.
"Satantango" continues through Monday at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan; (212) 708-9400.