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Few films use animals to comment on its characters to the extent that Sátántangó does. This thematic conceit is laid out in the film’s notorious opening shot, an 8+ minute tracking shot of cows grazing a barren Hungarian wasteland, moving from one muddy patch to the next with little sense of purpose (and occasionally trying to screw each other). Aside from its purpose as a stylistic rejoinder to the much more audience-friendly pacing and aesthetics of typical films, it functions as an amusing, low-key overture for the rest of the film. Because dumb animals living purposeless lives in flux, and occasionally screwing each other, isn’t far from the mark in describing Sátántangó‘s characters. The people in this film are thoughtless and crude, content to mire around in the muck; only financial opportunity (more to the point, greed, a base instinct) acts as sufficient motivation for them to get off their asses and do something. Even then, they’re led around by the nose as a rabbit might be with a carrot, instead of taking their own initiative.

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One of the most draining experiences any moviegoer can have is to watch Béla Tarr’s epic Sátántangó. The film runs for seven-and-a-half hours, and Tarr has stated his intentions that the film be viewed, if at all possible, in a single sitting – a nigh unreasonable demand for most of the moviegoing public. The longest movies you’ll typically find as box office smashes run no longer than three hours – think Titanic or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill – four hours when combining volumes 1 and 2 –  was split down the middle by MGM for fear that a movie of that length wouldn’t be tolerable for most audiences. And that was Quentin Tarantino, mainstream virtuoso wonderkind, making the most anticipated film of the year. So imagine the reactions the moviegoing public would have to something like Sátántangó which is daunting not just for its length but for its utterly glacial pace and seemingly unreasonable shot lengths. It’s an endurance trial in more ways than one, not just taken as a whole but seen as a series of episodes, many of which run well beyond a length that can be justified by the film’s sparse narrative.

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