Damnation is a lugubriously paced, formally rigorous, gorgeously photographed, and depressing film about one man's breakdown in Hungary in the early 1980s. Despite its historically resonant setting, the film has a universal quality in its thematic concerns of alienation, and of spiritual, moral, and physical decay. Damnation is a film about a depressed and lonely man in love with a married cabaret singer. He passes on a smuggling job, offering it to the singer's husband, so that he can be alone with her. When his plans go awry, he turns everyone in to the police. The plot elements may fit into the noir mold, but filmmaker Bela Tarr has professed that the actual story is of little interest to him. His focus is on the desolate landscape, exemplified by black and white images of the mud and the nearly constant rain, the snuffling stray dogs lurking at the edges of the frame, and the droning of the industrial cable cars that loom above the depressed town. Tarr also trains his camera, for long stretches, on the faces of the townspeople. There's one long, memorable tracking shot across a doorway, showing the rain slowly trickling down the brick and cement walls, and the faces of a crowd of people seeking shelter from the rain. This is followed by a party sequence, which ends with the drunken people joylessly (and seemingly endlessly) parading around the room in a glum conga line. Tarr's lost protagonist sums up his world view by telling his beloved how he has to fight his desire to simply stop speaking to other people altogether. Tarr's film is difficult and unremittingly grim, but it's also strangely beautiful. One can understand why Susan Sontag singled Tarr out and mentioned this film in her notorious 1996 essay, "The Decay of Cinema."
by Josh Ralske review