Bela Tarr 1994
It’s a sunny warm Saturday at the end of September, a day best spent outdoors enjoying what may be the last of our Indian summer. Not really the day to spend watching a 7hr 15min black and white Hungarian film, yet that’s what I’m heading for, on the bus to Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema to watch Bela Tarr’s Satantango. I’m already a fan of Tarr, having seen his Werckmeister Harmonies and The Turin Horse, both staggeringly beautiful and powerful, both very demanding. So I have great and fearful expectations. I’ve got my bag packed with supplies – drinks, sandwiches, grapes, mini tomatoes picked this morning from my garden, some raw cauliflower florets (weird, I know) polo mints, paracetamols, Rennies, and a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer.
The audience gather -mostly male, a respectable 20-odd, not bad at all, and we ruefully acknowledge each other with nods and sympathetic grimaces, like soldiers preparing for battle, we happy band of brothers. Elisabetta Fabrizi, Curator of screen-based media at the Tyneside, gives an excellent introduction. It’s informative, but more importantly communicates genuine personal enthusiasm and delight. And off we go. According to Elisabetta, Tarr asks that audiences don’t try too much to intellectualise his films, to think too much about them, but to respond viscerally, emotionally. I don’t intend here to attempt a ‘review’ of this amazing work of art, but here are my gut feelings.
Opening in a village that’s hardly big enough to warrant the name, we awake with the inhabitants to a wet dark morning at the beginning of the winter rainy season. Cows leave their byre, trampling through mud, with the occasional attempt to mount one another, making their way to their pasture as aimless and dispirited as the villagers are to turn out to be. An air of dread hangs over the place, as they await the arrival of two men, reported to be nearing the village. Should they leave before the pair arrive? Gradually we meet the various individuals, seeing the same events from different standpoints, as they start to make some sort of sense. Bundled up against the cold and wet, morose, afraid, flirtatious, drink-sodden – oh yes lots of that – we watch them relentlessly in tracking shots or unforgiving close-ups, trudging in their wellies along muddy lanes, through wind-lashed, litter-blown streets and dark woods see them slouching towards their uncertain futures across the landscape.
Despite how this may sound, it’s amazingly beautiful, even though not conventionally so at all, the flat central European plain mostly splodgy field-edge paths and rutted tracks, the buildings scrappy, even where there was once grandeur and aspiration, homes grimy and run down, packed with worn household stuff, papers, dirt-encrusted vessels and remains of food long forgotten. And the ubiquitous drink, consumed either in miserable solitude or the raucous pub, where the dancing is sometimes lyrical but mostly menacingly on the edge of violence. And it does go on. You can almost smell the drink coming off them. Like the Ancient Romans, the locals vomit it up to start again, in the way they never learn, or just don’t care, about their life experiences. But spending so long with the people and in the locality it’s impossible not to become immersed and totally taken up by the place, the textures of it. I came out during the first interval into sunny, busy city streets, and felt alienated from my own world, so deeply had I entered the vision inside.
So I did survive. And it didn’t even seem a strain, even though my eyelids drooped during my traditionally weak point in the early afternoon. A sugar rush of caramel wafer soon got me on track again. By the end I was weary and battered. And while it didn’t provide the absolute fix of exhilarating bleakness of The Turin Horse, or the intellectual fizz of Werckmeister, and I did feel, on the whole, it was a little too long, it was a staggering experience that will stay around in my heart as well as my brain for a very long time.
Outside the sun’s gone in, and it’s half way through the weekend already. Resume normal life.