From the very first shot, it’s immediately plausible to know if you’ll enjoy Damnation or not. The fixation, unmoving shot focusing on the power lines with various carts shifting along them. Inch by inch, the camera pulls out, painfully slow for some, but Béla Tarr’s work here is undeniably artistically pleasing. Tarr walks a fine line for cinema fans, some who wholly appreciate the merits of his narrative style, the slow-burn of artistic integrity. Others find the whole thing pretentious, slow, and whilst interesting lacks any semblance of entertainment. Both arguments hold weight, but in the case of Damnation, it’s hard to argue against the sheer beauty of its camerawork and underlying themes.
True to its title, Damnation is a musing on the desperations of life, and as we follow Karrer (Miklós Székely B.), it’s rather easy to get attached to this tender story of misery. He finds himself trapped within his own personal damnation, and it seems that no matter what he chooses to do, he’s always going to come out the other end feeling a bit worse for wear. It’s a gruelling process, but an eye-catching one at that. Mesmerising shots, lingering scenes that will give audiences plenty of time to muse on the events of the film and what they reflect. Characters that feel fully fleshed out and engaging, suffering their way through a malignant setting as best they can.
With a sparse amount of dialogue, it’s up to Tarr’s natural ability to express his story predominantly through visuals. The few scenes we do receive of characters interacting with one another are there merely to set the course steady, to divulge a bit of information that will ruminate as the film continues. Strong performances keep this one together for much of the running time, mainly thanks to how well they’re able to perform with emotion alone. They utilise this lack of wordplay rather well, with such physical performances, utilising them in a way that makes the layers of storytelling come together on the faces of our characters. Fear, anxiety, dread, it’s all there in meticulously beautiful detail.
Often compared to the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, the similarities are rather clear. Barren wastelands, foggy exteriors and generally decrepit interiors litter the life of our leading character. Tarr conjures up such vivid and emotive scenes that it’s hard not to fall in love with it from the very beginning. There are a few moments that, compared to the incredible start and powerful ending, feel a tad faulty or not as hard-hitting as these moments. The downtime within, the dips in both strong emotion and quality, are barely noticeable until the bitter end, but once they’ve settled, Damnation becomes more of a narratively conflicted piece.
If you have the energy for a slow-paced character study, and the focus on how assiduous these characters can be, then Damnation will come across as a well-acted, flauntingly artistic piece that provides a perfect entry into the filmmaking of Béla Tarr. Astoundingly gorgeous cinematography around every corner, with great performances and an intense maturity from Tarr make this a delight of suffering and cinematic expressionism.