Bela Tarr’s Cat

Bela Tarr Satantango Cat

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.

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About Richard

I am a writer who travels endlessly. Fascinated by how our lives are propelled forward by what's left behind, I thirst to know everything. I read, collect, gather, organise, list. Here are some of the things I read, see and experience. Please make yourself at home: drinks and pretzels will be served shortly. If you'd like to get in touch, I'd love to hear from you!


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2 Comments on “Bela Tarr’s Cat
  1. Thank you for this article. I haven’t even watched the entire movie and am undecided to what my opinion of Bela Tarr is… However I had exactly the same reaction and thoughts about the cat scene as you wrote. Generally I like movies that horrify and confront me – especially when it’s about a topic that IS horrifying and confronting. I was even shaken by “The Pianist” – it’s matter-of-fact, understated violence, callousness and brutality completely jarred me, and so it should. War is awful, we should be jarred. I actually love movies that make me feel something strongly because I am totally engaged in the horror. I’m not a fan of horror itself but if you’re showing me something horrible, then it’s a merit of the movie that I am horrified. However the cat scene jarred me for all the wrong reasons. What I’ve seen of Bela Tarrs work generally captivates me and although I’m not really a fan of the long drawn-out same-old same-old, I find it’s generally very emotive and full of subtleties that are fodder for thought. The cat scene actually took me straight out of the movie. Like you, I wasn’t horrified that a girl could do this, or that life could drive people to untypical horrors – I was just horrified that a filmmaker would do this. I suddenly came out of my meditative and sombre mood of someone walking alongside the characters and feeling for them even when they were being unpleasant, and came straight back to the disengaged role of movie-watcher, completely horrified about the practices employed in film-making. I am slightly reassured by the comments that the cat was ok and actually adopted by Tarr (although of course he’d say that!), but I do think the scene was done badly and actually detracted from the experience of the whole movie. I’m tired of reading patronizing articles by people telling me if I just stopped reacting to the wrong things, I could enjoy a great movie, or explaining (like we’re children) the significance of the scene and how Tarr often brings animals into his movies to mimic the helplessness and desolation the humans are experiencing. I’m not against the idea of the girl being violent to her cat or killing it. It would’ve been confronting, but it would’ve meant to be! I’m against how it was filmed – it definitely distracted me from the movie itself because I too was dissecting the scene to figure out how it was done.I was horrified – not that a desperate girl could hurt her cat, but that a film maker would, just for the sake of a movie!

    • Thank you for your comment, Kristiana. I wholeheartedly agree with everything your write. I love Bela Tarr’s work and I truly believe Sátántangó is one of the best films ever made–but for this one section. Even assuming the cat was okay (and I’m not at all sure about that), it simply pushes the viewer out of the world Tarr has created.

      Thank you so much for stopping by.

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