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Night and fog: The Man From London

The title of Bela Tarr’s second feature, The Outsider (1981), could apply to almost every character in every one of his films. The doleful compassion always present in his work is most vividly displayed here and in the other two films, Family Nest (1979) and The Prefab People (1982), that make up his “proletarian trilogy.” These forays into social realism — using hand-held cameras and relatively conventional editing — reveal the precociously gifted Hungarian filmmaker (he was in his early 20s at the time) to be a keen observer of the humiliations of poverty, unadorned by the extreme stylization that defines his later work; they depict domestic struggle in the most strenuously claustrophobic of circumstances, where relentless squabbling is the order of the day and the camaraderie of workers in dead-end jobs provides relief from the miseries of life at home. Tarr’s obvious affection for his downtrodden characters is contagious, and the exquisitely maudlin barroom scene in The Prefab People is the equal of its equivalents in Damnation and Satantango, the works that established his international reputation. Tarr’s films always take place in communities isolated from normal life by foul weather, indigence and alienation. His latest, The Man From London, is no exception. All the familiar Tarr elements are in place: mesmerizingly slow camera movements, lugubrious accordion music, terse dialogue, graveyard humor and bizarre drunken dance routines (here involving a man with a chair on his head lurching around a pool table). But the action, or lack of it, has moved from Hungary to a decaying Mediterranean port in wintry desolation (production was apparently delayed while the filmmakers hunted down a town ugly enough to film in). And Tilda Swinton puts in an appearance as a raging fishwife. A refreshing absence of concern for clarity, both visual and narrative, is evident in this adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel that ultimately serves as the backdrop to the riveting, beautiful bleakness unique to Tarr’s work. These are films that make richly rewarding demands upon the viewer. The rare opportunity to catch Tarr’s seven-and-a-half-hour masterpiece (there is no other word for it), Satantango, on the big screen should not be missed. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art Bing Theater; thru Fri., March 28.

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