Bela Tarr’s seventh film, a melancholy meditation on social disorder and senseless violence, begins with an enigmatic scene in a bar. Janos Valuska, a postman in a small Hungarian village, recruits three patrons to enact the heavens’ rotations. One man serves as the sun, vibrating his fingers to simulate its rays, while the other two play the earth and moon. Valuska sets them spinning about each other, stopping them to simulate a solar eclipse. Shot in a single ten-minute take, this sequence acquires resonance as the film progresses, coming to stand for a quest for harmony in a world that’s falling apart. But appreciating its full import depends on understanding the musical reference in the film’s title, which most critics have missed.

In the film–receiving its Chicago theatrical premiere at Facets Multimedia Center December 29–Valuska is something of a holy fool. He soon sees a gigantic truck lumbering into town carrying a huge preserved whale; parked in the market square, it also advertises the arrival of a mysterious Prince. We learn that previous appearances of the whale and Prince, who advocates chaos, have caused a commotion in other locales, and there’s already much discontent in this village–the people have no coal or phone service, and rumors of civil unrest run rife.

One of Valuska’s duties is to care for retired music professor Gyuri Eszter. In response to the mounting troubles, Eszter’s estranged wife, Tunde, founds a political movement requiring a “strong leader”; its goal is to “restore order, create cleanliness”–phrases with fascist echoes. She enlists the respected Eszter as that leader. But despite their efforts, crowds of men gather in ominous silence around the whale and grow uglier, and near the end a large group of club-wielding men invades the local hospital, beating up patients and smashing equipment.

Tarr has said the film, made between 1997 and 2000, was partly a response to the horrors in Bosnia, where “ethnic cleansing” took the form of mass rape and mass murder. But the details seem open to many interpretations. Valuska says the whale manifests the magnificence of “the Lord’s creative impulse,” but it could also signify capitalism at its crudest, exploiting nature for gain. And the camera never identifies with the disasters on-screen–there are no handheld “action” shots here, just stately, calculated movements. One viewer reportedly asked Tarr after a screening, “Where is the hope?” He didn’t answer, but his camera work, creating a tension between the order it seeks and the disorder it finds, suggests–as does Valuska’s planetary choreography–that intelligence and balance are not completely absent from this world.

Until the hospital scene near the end, there’s little action–what makes the film gripping is the sense of dread created by Tarr’s camera. Continuing the long-take style of the opening (which reiterates the long sentences of the novel on which the film is based, Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance), Tarr builds a subtle suspense: we wait for things to fall apart. The men in the market square seem statues frozen in space, but the camera’s movements around them emphasize their dynamically disordered arrangement. Long takes also serve as a reminder that time has its own autonomy–it’s apart from humans’ lurching violence. As the hospital invasion begins, the camera slowly approaches a brightly lit doorway; when men rush by, the camera tries to follow them from room to room but can’t keep up with their rampage. More deliberate, its movements measure time with an almost metronomic inevitability, intensifying our sense of the devastation by making clear that destruction, like time, cannot be reversed.

In many scenes the camera begins by tracking with Valuska, who acts as the viewer’s surrogate. But where in a classic Hollywood film the camera’s following of the hero makes his movements seem successful assertions of will as he rescues a heroine or wins a war, in Tarr’s film the characters’ independence is always qualified by the way the camera pulls away from them to depict other aspects of the scene. Following Valuska through the crowds in the market square, the camera seems drawn by a gravitational pull to close-ups of the threatening faces around him. When Valuska flees down a railroad track late in the film, the camera tracks in front of him, then turns its attention to a pursuing helicopter–one of many deflections that deny him freedom. Similarly, offscreen sounds frequently disrupt the action with news of social chaos, as when the camera moves from Valuska to a postal clerk describing growing unrest.

The film’s sensuous blacks and whites often unite the visual field in a continuous tactile surface, as when the camera observes the corrugated-metal side of the whale’s truck. But those surfaces are soon broken; here the camera quickly pans to a close-up of a poster advertising the whale, isolated against the dark night. Throughout Tarr creates a powerful tension between the camera’s quest for unity and scenes of disorder, the camera seeking balance where there is none. The composition of a scene in which Valuska is charged with putting two kids to bed is tableaulike, but the action is disruptive: one kid tries to attack Valuska with a drumstick while the other jumps on the bed clanging disks together.

The full meaning of the film’s quest for order, though, must be understood in terms of the musical theories offered by Eszter, the retired professor. (Though Valuska calls him “uncle,” they’re not related; it’s an honorific.) Eszter’s melancholy stems from what he sees as music’s slide away from godly harmony into modern imperfection, a devolution he attributes (wrongly, but no matter) to 17th-century German music theorist and organist Andreas Werckmeister. In a long speech, Eszter says that the result of Werckmeister instituting Western music’s current tuning system, equal temperament–in which the 12 notes of the octave are separated by precisely equal intervals–is that “all the intervals of masterpieces of many centuries are false”; in a later scene he calls a prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, meant to demonstrate the virtues of equal temperament, “grating.”

A little knowledge of music theory and history helps illuminate Eszter’s nostalgic references to Pythagoras and a music of “pure intervals.” For the Greek philosopher-mathematician, music, mathematics, and astronomy were linked manifestations of the harmony of the universe, a view that continued well into the Middle Ages. Pythagoras argued that the most euphonious harmonies resulted from tones that reflected the proportions of simple integers, such as 2:1 and 3:2. (Today we know that these simple ratios, which represent an octave and a fifth, cause sound waves to reinforce one another, producing consonant rather than dissonant chords.) The music of the spheres was supposedly created by tones the planets emitted while rotating–Pythagoras believed that the organization of the cosmos was based on the proportions among simple integers.

But basing musical scales on simple ratios leads to contradictions, such as octaves that aren’t true–the impetus behind equal temperament, which emerged in the Renaissance. But some, like Eszter, consider every interval except the octave in this system “impure” and “out of tune.” This is a debate that continues today: composer La Monte Young, for example, argues vehemently against equal temperament as unharmonious and retuned a piano according to whole-number ratios for his The Well-Tuned Piano.

In Eszter’s terms, the camera’s quest for order and symmetry is a quest for the unified worldview of classical Greece and the Middle Ages, for an ordered cosmos. But Tarr’s view is more nuanced. In the opening, Valuska attempts to create heavenly order–the music of the spheres–using the materials available to him: his drunken neighbors. But his response is quite unlike what one imagines the cultured Eszter’s might be. Valuska doesn’t object to his planets’ irregular lurchings; perhaps drunk himself, he seems pleased with the performance. Tarr sees fascism’s quest for absolute order as wrong; Eszter’s lugubrious musings on the falseness of equal temperament, stemming from his desire for perfection, are misguided, as he himself seems to acknowledge at the film’s end by caring for Valuska. Though Tarr makes his own attempts at ordering, he also acknowledges that humans are imperfect by nature and that true harmony depends on imprecision and compromise.