The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
The doctor in Béla Tarr’s 7¼-hour Satan’s Tango, from László Krasznahorkai’s novel, sits and observes the people in his rural Hungarian village, a prisoner of alcoholism, his fat body, the isolated community itself—and, stumbling outdoors in pursuit of another bottle, of the drenching autumn rain that, in conjunction with the mud below, fills his soul and the souls of his likewise impoverished, desperately unhappy neighbors: entrapment from the inside out. A herd of cows has slowly made its way away; but the human characters are stuck. Progress is an illusion: steps forward, steps back—like the steps of a tango.
In that dance, a performance of which holds the black-and-white film’s imaginative center, the couple’s steps also occur simultaneously and even overlap; similarly, activities in Tarr’s film are parallel and overlapping, like its 12 “chapters.” Another such image is the dance by which spiders weave their entrapping webs. But not all animals have it better than the people here. A young girl, cheated out of money by her older brother and denied consolation from even her mother, a prostitute, murders her cat and, appalled by the loss of this one companion of hers, kills herself with the same poison.
Expectation, betrayal; canceled trust: such events keep cropping up. The promise of financial riches for the villagers empties. Formally, long, fluid takes are betrayed by an eventual cut, brusquely signaling a new shot. Tarr’s narrative sometimes curves around, showing an event from another perspective—a compounding of subjectivity and complexity, but bereft of advancement: another illusion of progress.
Communism has yielded to capitalism: six steps forward, six steps back, for the hope proffered has been taken back, and the film ends poised on the verge of a possible commune—a step forward into the past. Gray lives; cosmic betrayal.
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