Béla Tarr: from index to both immersion and distance

An essay by Giuseppe Di Salvatore

When one has the opportunity to hear Béla Tarr speaking of his vision on cinema, one cannot but reflect upon the philosophical core of his oeuvre, also because of the universal aesthetics that emanate from his almost timeless settings. Something like a determinist movement seems to block his characters in blind alleys; through deceit and manipulation, any collective enterprise, from family to society, appears destined to be defeated, but this social defeatism is a solid architecture that is always, somewhere, cracked. A movement of resistance emerges, usually through the faces, the daily gestures, or the animals. Life, which for Tarr always deserves a deferential astonishment, and the dignity of the person, constitute the fissures of hope in his oppressing scaffolding.

Now, on the one hand, the personalist thread – cinematographically recalling the worlds of Bergman or Bresson (but without the religious infiltrations) – expresses a XIX century nostalgic flavour that definitely had a precise political meaning in the Soviet and post-Soviet Hungary. On the other hand, the modernity of Tarr’s classical-born films is all in what results from his deconstruction of meanings and values, which is life in its nakedness, in its reduced purity. What a dramaturgy that is very attentive to psychological continuity can deliver is quite simply the pleasure of the index as such: a ruined wall, a methodical gesture, or just the natural elements of the fire, the wind, the water. For this, repetition, slowness, and the constant reduction of narrative elements in his films amount to the disclosure of life in its mute resistance. This “aesthetics of the index” is quite coherent with the deconstructive tradition of post-classical cinéma d’essai – according to Gilles Deleuze’s infamous periodization – and probably determined the success of Béla Tarr’s films, at least in the arthouse world.

This essay has been originally published in April 2019.

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