I have just finished watching Bela Tarr‘s Satantango. An extraordinary experience, I never thought a film could merit being seven-and-a-half hours long. But it does. It needs this space to breathe, to be able to look at the minute textures of life.
I’m going to write two posts about Satantango. In the next one, I’ll look at its merits. In this one, however, I’m going to look at the one thing that hurt the film: the treatment of the cat.
On the internet you’ll find a dialogue about the cat going back years. Here’s the short and curlies: in section “Those Coming Unstitched” a young girl, Estike, fights with and then poisons her cat before carrying its corpe around in remorse. The section is shocking and uncomfortable to watch.
It was probably a mistake but a little while ago, I suggested my girlfriend read Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Apparently I blotted out the cat torture throughout the novel, else I might not have recommended it. I felt a bit bad: it’s a great novel, but those sections are very hard to read.
Now, that’s a book. Satantango is a movie. And a real cat was involved. Although careful camera angles are used during the fight scene and sound effects dubbed on to make it sound more real, it’s clear that the cat isn’t having a good time at all. Bela Tarr has said not only that there was a vet on the set at all times, but also that after filming he took the cat as his own pet.
If you read the discussion online it falls into people distressed by the treatment of the cat and people who gloss over it. One blog describes it as one of the movie’s “superficial issues that obfuscate a pure experience of the film.” I disagree.
It’s so horrifyingly realistic that, as you watch, you try to figure out how they did it. Was the cat tranquilised? Is one of them a model? Knowing how far Tarr goes in the name of realism (he’d get his cast drunk for the drunk scenes, for instance), you worry at times that he may have killed the cat.
I’m going to take Tarr at his word: that the cat was fine. But I’m still troubled. And that’s the problem. Elsewhere I was drawn into the movie and surrounded by it. Here, however, I was taken out of the moment. Ed Howard at Only the Cinema puts it well:
Such moments in a fiction film always shatter the illusion of a story being acted out. It’s too real, and too cruel, forcing one to think not about the cruelty of this girl, whose feelings of impotence lead her to assert her power over a defenseless animal, but the cruelty of the filmmakers who demanded that the scene be shot in this way, that these things should be done to a real, defenseless living thing.
“Those Coming Unstitched” is possibly the most important section of Satantango: it plays out the events of the movie in miniature, it acts as the catalyst for events in the second half. The way it was filmed, however, does little except distract from and undermine Satantango’s power.