This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Charlie’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Béla Tarr's 'Sátántangó' is a huge masterpiece that undeniably deserves to be one of the greatest films of all time. Not only in length is it huge, but in every other aspect possible too - atmosphere and themes most notably. I found myself left very confused after the timeline at the bottom of my screen came to a stop, knowing that there is so much more to discover underneath. So here I am, after several hours of collecting my thoughts, which I will now attempt to transfer into words from my messy brain - an objective description to this would be impossible, so this will be COMPLETELY subjective - if you don't agree with me, great! But don't devalue my opinion, because that's all it is - an opinion. Also, probably not the best quality wording as my writing skills are still amateur, but hopefully it all makes sense and doesn't sound like useless waffle.
I think that, at its core, 'Sátántangó' is a multilayered metaphor for a pessimistic perspective on life. This is linked through prominent themes of religion, power and freedom, which ultimately lead to this perspective. This Hungarian village has multiple residents who (sometimes loosely) fit into two adjacent categories - those who 'believe' and desire freedom (which they believe is achievable through money), and those who don't (the pessimists/accepters of their shit fate). Religion plays a key part here too, as the holy Christian figures 'God' and 'Jesus' are substituted by the 'Soviet Government' and 'Irimias' respectively (yet they clearly have negative tendencies towards the villagers, meaning a possible disguise for Satanism as Christianity?) - also, Irimias is literally resurrected from the dead in the eyes of the villagers. From this, those who believe transfer their desire for freedom into faith in Irimias who promises them new work and more money (thus freedom and power), ultimately leading them to follow him like Jesus' disciples. To persuade the villagers in believing him in the first place, Irimias takes the situation of Estike's (a small village girl) recent suicide as a reason to follow him, subsequently knowing their current vulnerability, and through this, he prompts them to give him all of their earnings in order to pursue their prosperous futures. As a result, this ultimately leads the villagers to a state of superficial freedom, in which they are following Irimias' instructions, as well as being under the control of the Soviet Government/God the entire time through Irimias' job as a police informant. So, in the end, do they actually achieve freedom if they believe they are free? Well, I personally don't think so, as at the end of the day, they are 'Dancing with Satan', leading to a pessimistic road that the characters will eventually reach the end of.
Regarding the pessimists/accepters of their shit fate, they reject Irimias' presence as anything holy or revelatory, and they knowingly accept their fate of monotonous life and ultimately death. Studying the main characters of this category, we have the Doctor, Estike and (eventually) Futaki. The Doctor is a home bound alcoholic, who by the end acknowledges the inevitable invasion of the Turks (as heard by the possessed bell ringer), consequently pursuing a pessimistic perspective via plunging himself into darkness by boarding his windows and starving to death - a fear of losing further freedom. Estike is a small girl who initially has a cat that she then kills alongside herself, which could be perceived as a form of accepting her inevitable doom after recognising the impossibility of obtaining full control over anything else other than her poor cat - also note that the monologue after her death mentions a sense of freedom in dying whilst referring to angels as well (the only person to actually reach heaven/religious sanctuary?). Now Futaki, he initially follows Irimias alongside other villagers, but as they all depart, Futaki is left with a vague futuristic prospect, as he intends to become a watchman (yet even then the government seem to attempt a plan of sorts involving him - a 'divine intervention' you could say), leaving him with a less negative future comparatively, but still an uncertain one nonetheless.
A common theme between everyone are the 'Seven Deadly Sins', in which all residents of both categories commit some of:
Greed - Desire for money, power and freedom (Futaki and the Schmidts particularly due to their plan to steal money from the others, but all the believers too to an extent, as well as Estike)
Gluttony - Drinking alcohol (Doctor especially, but everyone at the pub too)
Envy - Resentful desire, with violence as a vehicle towards it (Estike with her cat notably)
Wrath - Anger, expressed here through violence (Schmidt and Kraner surrounding Futaki's changing belief in Irimias)
Lust - Desire for sex (Mrs. Schmidt especially, cheating on her husband with multiple other men)
Pride - This one less so, but Futaki especially when it comes to his pride, regarding feeling pride in searching for his own job towards the end
Sloth - The Doctor, who rarely leaves his house
The fact that all of the main characters commit at least one of the sins further indicates a pessimistic view that they all deserve to die. Yet despite this, I believe that The Doctor is the most innocent - The Doctor at least attempts to aid Estike with her dead cat, showing some sign of empathy and kindness, also providing good reason for the Doctor to be the last person we see in the film, ultimately 'Closing the Circle'.
Further evidence for such views are the presence of repetition throughout (the music, dancing, chapters etc.), as well as Tarr's consistent use of tracking shots following the characters walk through horrendous muddy terrain to reach their destinations, and overall the bleak atmosphere achieved by the music and the cold (yet gorgeous) B&W visuals.
Also, I'd like to mention how incredible this film is aesthetically, as the visuals, long shots, cinematography, colour, music, composition, poetry, chapter structure and everything else are genuinely perfect, further cementing this film as a cinematic masterpiece.
All analysis aside, I thoroughly enjoyed watching this today, despite it ending up being the only thing I did, but nevertheless, a masterpiece that I will definitely hold close to my heart alongside my other favourites - this really warrants a rewatch though, which will probably provide me with a more thorough understanding, since I am confident I've only scratched the surface of this engimatic wonder, but for now, I need to sleep because holy cow that took all my energy away, yet I absolutely loved every second of it.