Monday, February 2, 2009

Prologue (2004) A Short Film by Bela Tarr

If you ask Bela Tarr about his contribution to 2004's Visions of Europe, a collaboration from 25 pioneering European directors on, quite simply, their visions of Europe, he'll treat it no different than he would his mammoth seven-hour Satantango. Or any of his features for that matter. Prologue is approximately 445 minutes shorter than his magnum opus, but he approaches it in the same way. It involves one fluid tracking shot that watches rather closely the destitute faces of a seemingly endless line of mangily characters. The shot instantly reflects Tarr's remarkable string of recent (last two decades) works, with its interest in slow lateral movement and stark black-and-white cinematography. 1988's Damnation contains a shot that is very similar, although this time around the camera is moving to the left as opposed to the right, and there lacks a rhythmic exchange of dirty wall to dirty faces.

As usual, the models in Tarr's films appear to be waiting for something, and given their air of general pessimism, it is likely out of desperation. This notion is resolved once the camera reaches the end of the line and a smiling woman opens a sliding window on the brick wall to commence giving rations to the men. A mood of curiosity develops as the eager faces glide by the screen at a continuous rate, only revealing profiles and teasing frontal glances multiple times. There is something to be said of Tarr's views of gender roles; his outlook is quite classical, treating the men as hungry laborers devoted to the difficult inevitabilities of life (such as waiting in an expansive line), and the woman - who are nonetheless cut from the same cloth - as nourishers. Most of his work shares this sentiment, save in Werckmeister Harmonies, when Hannah Shuygulla emerges as an ambitious, independent thinker. Prologue, while being formally stunning paired with Mihály Vig's repetitious and mournful waltz, is a singular and far-reaching addition to Visions of Europe that once again cements Tarr's grim view of the working class in Hungary or elsewhere.

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