Bela Tarr Retrospective: Journey on the Plain (1995)

For years since I awarded Bela Tarr the Ingmar Bergman Lifetime Achievement Award I’ve been meaning to do a full-blown retrospective on his career. In part because I could do one in totality as he has retired, and because his oeuvre is not as large as some. However, all I managed to post thus far was a look back at The Werckmeister Harmonies, I had already posted my extemporaneous reaction to The Turin Horse.

I have also previously covered his short film work here.

This is an interesting short work as it follows on the heels of his emblematic work of Satantango, deals with the iconic Hungarian plains, features the man who crafted his scores Mihály Vig, and the work of renowned Hungarian poet Sándor Petőfi. This film is a medium-sized example of Tarr’s style. Though it may not be his strongest short it is a good one and worth reflecting upon.

Cinematic Episodes: The Secrets of Barslet

Cinematic Episodes is another cross-medium post wherein the link between cinema and another medium is explored. I have written about adaptations, films in books, characters in comics and other arts hitting the big screen. However, I recently have started to consider some of the technical, and in some ways, narrative similarities film and television have always shared and are starting to share.

One of the recent changes to the landscape of television here in the US is that in the gradual shift from the immovable regimented season structure there has also come a redefining of what a season is. Sure, if you follow entertainment outlets you’ll note that the major networks have recently concluded seasons and have announced what has survived to return in the fall and what pilots will be picked up. There is still that traditional structure, however, there is a greater flexibility to it all now than there ever was. There are shows, mostly of the non-scripted variety that start up in the summer; other’s are slated as mid-season replacements. Whereas during the first Golden Age of television seasons would run in excess of 35 episodes; even the now more common 22-episode season is not necessarily the norm.

The flexible nature of the length of a season or even a series, as opposed to the old mini-series mold, allows for more cinematic storytelling. In some ways this is a trend that has been adopted by US networks, both premium and not, from foreign TV Markets. And, yes, clearly there is a financial incentive to making smaller commitments, but there is also an artistically liberating aspect to this all as well.

One of the best examples of the narrative benefits of a limited TV run can be seen on the Dutch-produced The Secrets of Barslet. This was a show that aired 2012 and was comprised of merely seven episodes. However, for the story being told that was precisely as long as it needed to go. One of the things people can hold against television is that the brass ring is renewal even at the cost of the quality of the product on screen. This and many other foreign series never run into that issue because there is an emphasis, it would seem, on engaging an audience for the run of a show and trying to bring them back for another, as opposed to trying to “squat” on their devotion even as the product they used to love descends into tedium.

The Secrets of Barslet is a story that unfolds over the course of seven episodes. Each episode tells the story from the perspective of one of the central characters in the tale. As each perspective is taken into account blanks are filled in and previously unexplained or misunderstood mysteries are brought into sharper focus.

There are inevitably through the course of this series incidents that are examined from various angles, both figuratively and literally. Such that the program develops its own shorthand to quickly re-include previously seen scenes so that their place in chronology and the impact to that particular character is instantly made clear.

This structure of seven episodes of roundabout an hour of content is not unlike what Bela Tarr did with Satantango, in strictly structural terms only. In that film the structure is not unlike the steps of a tango such that the story will backslide chronologically when dealing with a new character. Here there are backslides, multiple dovetails and then each episode (for the most part) pushes things forward. So that the number is similar, as well as the character-based approach to the narrative. In terms of the aesthetics of the frame and the edit there are obvious differences.

Oddly enough, Tarr’s long-take ballet of the camera is, even with a necessary intermission, at its seven-plus hour length is a cumulative, more cinema-friendly experience. When I first viewed it I had it on VHS and watched it on four consecutive nights. When I acquired it on DVD I watched in one day and the experience, though harder to schedule was more complete and moving. The Secrets of Barslet not just with its mysteries but with its addictive nature is perfectly realized as a television show. You finish a chapter and you immediately want to proceed and are forced to wait until you can see the next one.

Another similarity it has Satantango is that there are some small mysteries this show feels no need to explain furthermore its not interested in the banal histrionics of having everyone understand everything in the end. True to its format of limited omniscience it allows the viewer to see the whole truth while the characters remain fairly myopic. The Secrets of Barslet is the epitome of a modern cinematic television series not just because of its aesthetic, or the way it cuts but because of its narrative sophistication.

Book Review: Damnation by Janice Lee

As I have mentioned in the past, the only time I will stray from writing directly about film on this site is only in such a way that it still ties back to film. Therefore, when I was informed about Janice Lee’s book Damnation, I had to jump at the chance. Damnation is a book telling a fragmented narrative through prose poetry influenced by the works of filmmaker Bela Tarr. Tarr being the renowned Hungarian filmmaker (He also recently won BAM Awards for Best Director and the Lifetime Achievement Award).

Usually, I approach Prefaces/Forewords and Afterwords/Appendices as optional, however, they come most highly recommended in this book. They are quite informative with regards to the process and have great insights into the work, and Tarr as well.

That’s not to say that the narrative cannot stand alone. In fact, if you are familiar with Tarr this is a tale you’ll definitely enjoy a great deal. However, something that is referenced in the afterword, written by collaborator Jared Woodland, is of note: he refers to this work being one in “the genre of Bela Tarr.” That is a most astute encapsulation, not only of the book but of Tarr’s work; for the true greats seem to work in an arena all their own.

As I read it, I found that although the book is called Damnation it culls influence from many of his works to form this story, and sure enough in the back it lists the references as four films (Damnation, Satantango, The Werckmeister Harmonies and The Turin Horse). It also struck me that since this is a pastiche, my long-burning question about what the best introduction to Tarr would be has found an answer, and it is Damnation by Janice Lee.

However this book is not inundated in its influence. For in any work that’s considered an homage there has to be some personality or spin from the author herself to make it work, and this book absolutely has a personal touch. It paints with Tarr to tell the author’s tale.

Any cinephile, whether familiar with his work or not, should enjoy the book as well for the poetical styling of the prose; the images wrought play out like a film. Scenes begin and are cut, and one can see the cuts within scenes. It’s a living embodiment of Eisenstein’s theory of poetry as a verbal montage.

The tale-such-as-it-is is interesting. It’s phrased as such because the narrative doesn’t follow a conventional form. There are incremental repetitions of locales and characters, who all have designated labels rather than names. However, it’s also because Tarr created stories-such-as-they-are. The works referenced especially are multi-character tableaux wherein the personages ruminate on the various existential and metaphysical questions at play.

The book offers neither setting nor location to lend it a timeless quality, as it follows the universal theme of decay. Yet, even with this tonal portrait of the commonality of disintegration, it’s still a page-turner, and not just for the cinematic elements within for there are many equivalencies in the writing technique that make it a cinematic as well as a literary document.

One way in which the flow is manipulated is that towards the end the vignettes become smaller and intensify. This portrait of a dying town on the verge of apocalypse, painted in labels, inviting involvement/creation, is quotable and filled with descriptives of sound again making it audiovisual, but passages about stench and texture bring you into a literary realm anew. Its staying in the present tense and insisting that you proceed, without stopping; also makes it cinematic.

Tarr may have just recently retired, but aside from the work he is doing to teach young filmmakers at his school, his legacy can be felt here, and in the countless other artists he will continue to inspire. The obsession for Lee and Woodland isn’t over either, for they are currently writing a book on Tarr’s long takes in Satantango. So aside from a work of fiction he inspired there will now be a scholarly, cinematic work on one of his masterpieces.

It’s a joy, and not a wonder, that sketches of frames (re-created storyboards) from Tarr’s films are found in the appendices of the book as well. For the book is not only drawing from said images but expounding on them, creating new ones; a new tapestry. The power of Lee’s work is as undeniable as the films that inspired her and are truly a gift to us all. Do yourself a favor and seek this book out, you’ll be glad you did.

For more information on Janice Lee you can visit her website. Damnation is available for (pre-)order at Amazon here.

Bela Tarr Retrospective: Introduction

In my recent Short Film Saturday post I talked of a perfect introduction to Bela Tarr. As I will discuss in these and other pieces that form the retrospective on his works, in light of my bestowing upon him the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award, such assimilation can prove to be rather difficult. My baptism in his works was one by fire. Therefore, it’s always hard to try and think outside of your frame of reference to try and ease someone else in.

I at first toyed with the notion of going through his works, which are not as numerous as last year’s winner (Spielberg), chronologically. However, if I were to start at the very beginning, and I likely will head there at some point, we would discuss films that pre-date the metamorphosis of his aesthetic.

Bela Tarr is fascinating for myriad reasons, but one of the most apparent is that rarely has a filmography featured so strong a departure in style. Tarr’s early works in the 1970s were in the zeitgeist, which was stark documentarianism. Cinéma vérité was the vogue amidst a wave of talented Hungarian filmmakers. Starting in 1982 he became increasingly more stylized.

Satantango (1994, Facets)

Tarr was my doorway into the world of Hungarian cinema. It’s a culture I do like to explore periodically and have learned more about since being introduced to it through his eyes. What the chronological approach would seemingly negate is the veritable reason he won this award. It’s not that his earlier works aren’t good, there is in the scripting his essence. In fact, a title like Family Nest translated his insistence that all his films are comedy better than any others. However, his early films featured his voice speaking a seemingly foreign tongue. His real cinematic voice was not truly heard, did not differentiate itself, or make itself unique until his style broke off from its initial sensibility.

Some have referred to his hour-and-change rendition of MacBeth for Hungarian television, that was shot in two takes, and Almanac of the Fall as more transitional titles than ones that show the true power of his later style. However, if one watches The Prefab People and then MacBeth back-to-back it’s fairly staggering. You may not even realize it’s the same director. Whereas if you sample the Prologue from Visions of Europe you very soon know Tarr and if you see a famous tracking shot from Satantango, The Turin Horse or Werckmeister Harmonies you know it’s the same person.

So next week when I do return and write about a specific film, I will begin after the break and then if I feel so compelled I will backtrack to the beginning and deal with his earlier works before he revolutionized his own style.

The Turin Horse (2011, Cinema Guild))

While in each post I will focus on the specific film at hand when you have a writer/director who insists on challenging an audience, on letting us “use our eyes,” a man who also is disinterested in stories in the traditional sense, you will have running themes. Throughout his career, especially after he broke the mold, his films were creating thematic dialogues. The culmination of which was his masterful dissertation in The Turin Horse. When you have running themes there will be parallels between films to be drawn. I will try to keep those to a minimum and focus on the title at hand.

While Tarr got me into chasing down Hungarian cinema, I knew pretty quickly he had a unique voice. However, I soon also found out that his voice could have only been developed in the Hungary’s film culture, on the arthouse end of the spectrum, of course.

Like any filmmaker, Tarr’s work as auteurist as it is, is a collaboration. As he worked towards his reportedly last film the pieces started to come into place to solidify his style. The editing of Agnes Hranitzky since The Outsider in 1981; Fred Kelemen as DP for some of his later projects starting with Journey on the Plain; novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai had writing or co-writing credit on all of Tarr’s features starting with Damnation in 1988; composer Mihaly Vig has been on board since Almanac of the Fall in 1984. Together these people shared a commonality that helped to accentuate Tarr’s vision and bring it to the world such that it could not only be admired, but challenge the way it was intended to.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Facets)

In the end, I got in my first revisit just in time to start this series on time. However, so as not to under-serve the challenge I’ve set for myself I decided on a true introduction piece to be followed by film-specific pieces. Tarr’s cinema is not one that is suited for “hit-me entertainment,” it insists you prod back and in deference to that fact, and out of respect, I will ruminate on Werckmeister Harmonies‘ mesmerizing and brilliant brutality a bit more.

To get a bit more of a glimpse into this creative mind, to see where he’s coming from. Here’s an excerpt from a piece he wrote called Why I Make Films, which he wrote during preproduction of Damnation:

Because I despise stories, as they mislead people into believing that something has happened. In fact, nothing really happens as we flee from one condition to another. Because today there are only states of being – all stories have become obsolete and clichéd, and have resolved themselves. All that remains is time. This is probably the only thing that is still genuine – time itself: the years, days, hours, minutes and seconds. And film time has also ceased to exist, since the film itself has ceased to exist. Luckily there is no authentic form or current fashion. Some kind of massive introversion, a searching of our own souls can help ease the situation.

Or kill us.

We could die of not being able to make films, or we could die from making films.

But there’s no escape.

Because films are our only means of authenticating our lives. Eventually nothing remains of us except our films – strips of celluloid on which our shadows wander in search of truth and humanity until the end of time.
I really don’t know why I make films.

Perhaps to survive, because I’d still like to live, at least just a little longer…

Short Film Saturday: Prologue from Visions of Europe

One recent tradition I have unintentionally started is that I will kick-off a new theme or series through Short Film Saturday. It makes sense since Short Film Saturday is my most frequent and longest running post. The theme that this short will correlate with is the beginning of a Bela Tarr retrospective. Another decision I have come to organically is that the winner of my Lifetime Achievement Award will be the focus of a series of posts the following year. It began with my Spielberg Sunday posts and this year I will look back on many of Bela Tarr‘s works. This short is actually one I had not seen yet.

Visions of Europe is a 2004 anthology film wherein various acclaimed European directors made short films about Europe, specifically their own corner. Bela Tarr‘s short acts as the prologue. As those who know him will attest the attributes of this short are not surprising: it is comprised of one long take and the haunting, soul-encompassing, cyclical score by Mihaly Vig. This short makes me want to watch the rest of the film and and is a perfect introduction to Tarr I feel.

2012 Ingmar Bergman Lifetime Achievement Award

In my 2005 BAM Awards wrap-up, I wrote how I was considering creating a Lifetime Achievement Award and giving it to Ingmar Bergman. The idea was to award him upon completion of his swan song that proved unnecessary when I saw Saraband and it was one of my favorite films of that year and he won Best Director.

It seems this prize has now come full circle as another great director has made what he claims (and right now I believe him) is his last film and it is a great one. This year’s recipient is Bela Tarr.

Tarr is a director I’ve come to know well. However, when I first learned of him and what many consider to be his masterpiece (Satantango) I knew nothing save for the plot of the movie, that it was very long and I had to see it. I went in fairly cold and there was a sort of kinship there. I connected and I got it. That connection extended through much of Hungarian cinema, but it started with Tarr and it started instinctually.

I’ve since come to learn about him, read writings on his work – perhaps what is most fascinating about him is he went from stark cinéma vérité to an aesthetic all his own of long takes, moving cameras, black-and-white minimalist existentialism that is unique in all the world.

I’ve tackled Satantango a number of times, I agree it’s a film that could be viewed annually but I haven’t in a few years and its time to change that. I’ve, of course, seen as many of his films as possible.

It’s one I want to watch all over again. For one thing that is certain is that he proves that auteurism is indeed a live and well. He’s a rare breed, and is also giving back to the cinema fostering artists and striving for aesthetic excellence first and foremost.

The one thing that in my experience I’ve found Tarr has in common with Bergman is this brilliant final bow, his being The Turin Horse.

Tarr’s cinema is one that has evolved and is as exacting as Bergman’s, though not as prolific.

A great filmography is one where many films stand out and apart; Tarr has that:

Hotel Magnezit
Family Nest
The Outsider
Prefab People
Macbeth
Almanac of Fall
Damnation
Satantango
Journey on the Plain
Werckmeister Harmonies
The Man From London
The Turin Horse

I’ve come to know Hungarian cinema in part because of Bela Tarr and admire it. I admire this man, his work and his vision. This admiration grows leaps and bounds when you add the fact that he’s trying to help ensure the future of the artform in his home country, and around the world.

A great filmmaker’s films will last forever, even greater is the man whose trying to ensure cinema itself lasts forever.

BAM Award Winners: Best Director

So both here and in Best Cast there was some revisionism over the years, however, rather than try and readjust things I’ll just let things stand where they are at current.

The Best Director category is an interesting one because it is usually, in the mind of many, inextricably tied to the Best Picture winner. There is a certain logic to that, however, they are two rather different awards when you boil it down. In Best Picture you pick the story and the production. In Best Director you are picking a visionary and the architect of a production. There are times when the direction of a film will outshine its narrative or overall impact or a story that is wonderful but handled with a rather invisible hand that allows splits to occur.

I have three such splits in 1997, 1998, 2005 and 2012 none of which I was hesitant at all about.

2019 Jordan Peele Us

2018 Bo Burnham Eighth Grade

2017 Andy Muschietti It 

2016 Gareth Edwards Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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2015 George Miller Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad-Max-Fury-Road-Tom-Hardy-George-Miller

2014 Daniel Ribeiro The Way He Looks

The Way He Looks (2014, Strand Releasing)

2013 Gavin Hood Ender’s Game

Ender's Game (2013, Summit)

2012 Bela Tarr The Turin Horse

Bela Tarr

2011 Martin Scorsese Hugo

2010 Christopher Nolan Inception

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2009 Spike Jonze Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are (2009, Warner Bros.)

2008 Tomas Alfredson Let the Right One In

Thomas Alfredson

2007 Timur Bekmambetov Day Watch (Dnevoy bazar)

Timur Bekmambetov

2006 Richard E. Grant Wah-Wah

2005 Ingmar Bergman Saraband

Ingmar Bergman on the set of Saraband (Sony Pictures Classics)

2004 Jacob Aaron Estes Mean Creek

Jacob Aaron Estes

2003 PJ Hogan Peter Pan

Peter Pan (2003, Universal)

2002 George Lucas Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones

George Lucas (2002, Lucasfilm)

2001 Steven Spielberg Artificial Intelligence: A.I.

Steven Spielberg (DreamWorks)

2000 Julie Taymor Titus

JULIE TAYMOR PRESENTS BOOK OF HER FILM 'TITUS'

1999 M. Night Shyamalan The Sixth Sense

M. Night Shyamalan on the set of The Sixth Sense (Hollywood Pictures)

1998 Steven Spielberg Saving Private Ryan

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1997 Neil Mandt Hijacking Hollywood

1996 Lee Tamahori Mulholland Falls

A Reading and Review of The Turin Horse

Erika Bók in The Turin Horse (Cinema Guild)

NOTE: A film like this warrants discussion beyond a typical review. While some relevant plot details are discussed they are not what I’d deem spoilers.

Béla Tarr. Perhaps one of the most daunting things to contend with when writing about him or his films is trying to encapsulate him and/or his work for the uninitiated. For to write this review solely as the fan and devotee that I am would not do for all who may come across this article. The read of the film that rang true to me became apparent very quickly. However, the prior question nagged me. So how do I go about it? Carefully and with explication but not what I’d classify as a spoiler. Recently, upon viewing Fata Morgana I tweeted that I was glad it wasn’t my introduction to Herzog and that it likely should’ve been the last film of his I saw. With Tarr there really only is baptism by fire I feel and I’ll attempt, aside from reacting, to give a bit of a primer for his work. My baptism by fire occurred by acquiring and watching his seven-hour epic Satantango while in college and I’ve been hooked ever since.

This is as good a place as any to discuss the pace and a few other trademarks of Tarr’s work. Tarr has shot only black and white for the past 30 years. He moves the camera beautifully and intricately at times while using very long takes. I counted shots in this film and came up with a similar number to reports I read: 30. The running time is approximately 146 minutes meaning the average length of a take of about five minutes when Hollywood has us conditioned to expect cuts every five seconds, depending on genre. All the cuts are good, some are wonderful and the pace works for the tale but is worth noting for those who are unfamiliar with his work. Gird your attention span!

With regards to this film, as I started to watch it what struck me is that it seemed like his own version of Jeanne Dielman. This allusion to Chantal Akerman is not completely my own Scott Foundas in a Facets symposium on Tarr made the comparison that made me want to see Jeanne Dielman in the first place. However, while he’s talking stylistically in terms of camera movement, mise-en-scene and blocking; here the narrative in many ways resembles in that in Jeanne Dielman in as much as the film most reveals its characters and their story in the slow but steady deterioration of daily routines.

The setup is fascinating in two ways: First, the name of the film refers to the incident wherein Nietzsche supposedly lost his mind, he so felt for a horse being beaten by his owner that he broke down in tears, intervened and embraced the horse and was never the same. The story then is really about the owner of said horse and his daughter, however, I’d caution you not to forget about the horse and the title and watch him and his arc and the relationship the family has with him. Second, in a structural consideration the inciting incident occurs in a voice over wherein a detached, unidentified narrator tells us what happened and that propelled an unseen Nietzsche into madness and affected the horse and the family in the long run.

The film is above all indirect, even when seemingly being direct, which is part of its brilliance. The film is about the inevitability of death but it’s not spoken about in certain terms. The bare minimum these people need to do to survive starts to deteriorate as does their ability and willingness to live, mostly due to said uncommented upon inevitability.

Perhaps what works best is that it really creeps up on you. These routines play out repeatedly, shot and cut a little differently each time such that the slight changes at the start might not be picked up but then you start to see them.

With regards to moments that are direct there are a few ways to interpret them. Perhaps the pivotal scene where there can be some debate is one wherein their neighbor comes over because he’s run out of Palinka (Hungarian fruit brandy). It’s human nature to want to hang your hat on something when watching a story that’s not traditional, therefore when watching a father and daughter just doing what they do in a desolate countryside in the middle of an unnatural windstorm you listen to the neighbor’s wild theory. Ohlsdorfer, the father, dismisses it as bull and some reviews as a red herring, I feel the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

You don’t have to know Tarr’s cinema to start to sense that there’s a metaphysical nature being applied to a mundane setting, a sort of allegory free of dogmatic restraints. The neighbor’s theory on what’s wrong with the world and life in general may be only his mad formulation but his view, like anyone else, is all he has and everyone’s seeking an answer, we may change it, we may not have one but anyone’s guess is as valid as the next to questions like “What’s the point of all this? What’s going on? Why am I here?” The neighbor’s theory may be vague and labyrinthine but part of what tips it towards truth for me is that he made it a specific revelation to each individual and not an externalized event. I know I’ve have been aloof in the theory’s description because I think it’s open to individual interpretation. My inference that it’s closer to fact or fiction falls in line with my final interpretation, which deals directly with how the film ends, which I will not reveal.

Similarly oblique is the passage read from a book left as a gift by a band of Gypsies passing through for some water. However, in that it speaks of defiling of the Holy Land and damnation, in short inevitability, so it works. It connects to a theme rather than offering and epiphany, yet I did have one. Only as I was just walking out of the theatre after the very short closing credits did I realize the last domino that needed to fall for me and it did and it made the whole thing that much more amazing.

The film keeps its cast of characters small and the location virtually unchanging. It’s probably too claustrophobic to be called a chamber drama. That sense heightened by the sound editing and mixing which plays the persistent sound of the wind at just the right level to unnerve you and will then drop entirely to bring in Mihály Vig’s dichotomic score, half-mellifluous and half-discordant.

Another thing that bears mentioning that there’s next to no dialogue. Yes, there is the neighbor’s extended monologue which gets a few replies, curses thrown at the gypsies and occasional exchanges between father and daughter but no scene I would call a conversation scene and it’s all the better for it. The lack of the spoken word invites you to participate in the film more freely, draw your own conclusions.

The actors János Derzsi, Erika Bók and Mihály Kormos are all brilliant. The main tandem do so much physically and with their eyes they scarcely need dialogue to convey their emotions and turmoil.

The only other plot point that really bears any discussion is the attempt the Father and Daughter make to leave their house. You are not told or shown why they don’t make it to some safer locale. You are left to speculate on it. I drew my own conclusion, you may draw a different one. It’s just one of the other great touches this film has. Again it’s something that fits in my reading for the story, in a film about the inevitability of death what escape can there be, really?

It’s a bit sad to have to say that not all directors are what you can call visionaries but Tarr is definitely one. What you see on display in The Turin Horse is the mark of an artist. There is a style and language all his own, which he has cultivated through the years. I love Hungarian cinema from what I’ve been able to see but at the start of his career you wouldn’t know just by watching one of Tarr’s films it was his, now his style is unmistakable and inimitable, unique in all the world. If this is truly to be his last feature what a glorious way to go.

The Turin Horse is a flat-out masterpiece. That’s not a word I use lightly. There are films I consider masterpieces but I did not proclaim them as such upon first seeing them. However, when trying to encapsulate my reaction that’s the first word that came to mind. It truly is, it’s sheer brilliance and believe me when I say that my stating several facts in the course of this piece does not detract from the experience of the film, it’s just a guide. Watching and immersing yourself in it is a lot more valuable and harder to describe than a few instances in the story. If you have decided this is the kind of film you’d like to see (it’s certainly not for everyone) it’s worth seeking out on the big screen.

10/10