Damnation

So, you thought you could handle European cinema’s bleakest of the bleak? Be forewarned: Béla Tarr is a potent spirit. There might be a good film-nerd comedy sketch to be wrought from the plight of a beleaguered Tarr publicity functionary, churning out jittery press releases: “Tired of Tarkovsky? Agitated with Antonioni? How about a gloomy Hungarian?”

As Tarr’s gorgeous and dauntlessly dreary art-house treasure Damnation (1988) continues to find American audiences, it comes off at once like a nostalgic throwback — to the weirdly reassuring Euro-despair that festered for decades during the Cold War — and an astonishing new discovery. Damnation is a profoundly self-actualized existential mope, one long pregnant pause; the astonishment comes from recognizing what exhilaration it actually delivers.

Plot-wise, the film concerns a hopeless affair between a brooder (Miklós Székely) and the standoffish singer (Vali Kerekes) at his dingy mining-town watering hole, the Titanik Bar. The woman’s husband is briefly gotten out of the way by means of a smuggling run, leaving her suitor free to make declarations like: “I realize there’s an enticing tunnel from you to a world eternally out of reach.” OK, I’m sure it’s better in the Hungarian — it certainly sounded lyrical — and, anyway, you never doubt how much he means it.

Besides, the guy lives in a black-and-white world (beautifully photographed though it is) of rotting buildings and stray dogs roaming rainy streets, scored by minor-key accordion music and the clicks of billiard balls.

Later he says, “I sit by the window and look out totally in vain. For years and years I’ve been sitting there, and something always tells me that the next moment I’ll go mad. But I don’t go mad.” Tarr must know these lines describe the experience of watching his movie; his mesmeric, slowly drifting takes somehow suggest both indifference and unlimited inquiry. This is brave and bracing stuff.