David Wheeler’s review published on Letterboxd:
My first Tarr film.
Caught somewhere between the dead of winter and the viability of a new, life-bringing season (only, such a notion would seem impossible in this decrepit setting), we are introduced to the world of Sátántangó with the first of many long takes. Hidden away in the endless flatlands of country-bound Hungary, irregularly plotted by leafless trees, a horde of wandering cattle emerges from a large building situated in the heart of a farming commune. For ten minutes do we watch this bevy of bovine navigate the crooked, misshapen, sodden alleys and pathways (for these muddy passages do not even merit the definition of roads) of this small community. It is a proper wasteland of mud and waterlogged detritus as if we are witnessing the twilight days of a post-apocalyptic, misbegotten quagmire. The audio cues of the wandering, largely unobstructed wind — the sound effect itself often used in film with scenes of vast nothingness, of solitude and isolation — would seem to directly call back to the aurally-defined cliche of "the wasteland." It's as if this is the realm where Satan can dance freely and without restraint, performing the tango, if you will.
A first response to the film is in its extremely heightened attention to texture, the first of an infinite amount of qualities adherent to the picture. You practically feel the cold slime of the mud, the smell of piss, shit, and oil, falling into the cracks and fissures upon the faces of these weary farmers, their greasy tendrils of hair lathered in the self-produced oils of their own worn-down bodies. The ramshackle houses, the very earth, the people, even the very air itself would seem to be discovered here in various states of decay, of desolation and decrepitude, in this antediluvian world. So filthy is this film that even flies — the connoisseur of shit — flicker about often in front of the camera, one such flyer being so bold as to land on the lens itself. A nasty film cinematographically, even going so far as to olfactorily invade the senses, yet so too are the characters.
The film is set during the one-party socialist republic of Hungary (officially titled the Hungarian People's Republic), between 1949 and 1989, the era where, after the war, Churchill and Stalin — following an agreement reached during the 1944 Moscow Conference — consented Hungary as being a property of the Soviet state: a monumental province of communism. As such, much of the film's background would be lost to those unfamiliar with this period in Hungary's history, where apparently people would ostensibly sell others out for monetary gain, the end result being the imprisonment or execution of those bargained for. Yet, as much as there is a plot here, a structured 12-part narrative of events, Sátántangó is overwhelming uninterested in the sociopolitical matters which serve as its scaffolding. Instead, we look to character, to mood and tone, to atmosphere, all through the steady motions of slow cinema.
Apparently composed of some 150 total shots, stretched almost impossibly, inconceivably, over 439 minutes, Sátántangó moves incredibly slow — like the slow crawl of a real-time cinematic evolution as the camera reluctantly, forcibly, turgidly, captures the mundane moments of this collective farming village. Famed slow cinema devotees in Tarkovsky and Weerasethakul gawk at the slower cinema of Tarr. For the average moviegoer, this would be the type of film where more pleasure may be found in reconsidering the calligraphic geometry of the alphabet in the subtitles than in the images or narrative (as sorrowful as that sounds). We watch, for instance (and on two separate occasions), as a character prepares to divvy up a stack of money, and you know for damn sure writer-director Béla Tarr is going to follow every repudiated bill — or later observe a smoky fog dissipate before his actors can again regain the stage. However, I dare say, this slowness works against him at times. Not necessarily because a scene is "slow" insomuch that it is "uninteresting" — perhaps most notably in the scene where we, again, watch the farmers and their wives dance in the bar.
Diverting to literary analysis, one could read this as the cruel twin, the antithesis, of the Exodus story as the seemingly messianic figure in Irimiás would seem to be Moses leading his people out of the village muck and into a better life. After all, like the fatal tenth plague, it takes the death of an innocent to spur the farmers into action. However, this Moses is deceitful, manipulative, a viper spilling poison into their gullible ears, the misleadingly-colored green toxin of his speeches masked by pretty words. Irimiás even notes them as sheep at one point — like the wandering cattle in the opening shot — and sheep they are, willfully following this man's word.
Aside from Irimiás, the film's most interesting character finds itself with the nameless village doctor. A drunk and a hermit, the Doctor faintly reads as agoraphobic, often never leaving his house as the other villagers note. He is cantankerous, obese, and a benign voyeur [perhaps even an unconfirmed narcoleptic as he, on four separate occasions, passes out — though this may be chalked up to his morbid state of unhealth more than anything], taking up a hobby in watching his neighbors' daily activities and logging them in his vast collection of notebooks. A drunkard and a mouthbreathing slob, but he is clearly the learned man of the community based on his endless stacks of books and papers. He may even be a failed writer, a poet, seeking inspiration from his neighbors in Mr. Schmidt, the cuckold; Futaki, the disabled-yet-resourceful handyman; and Mrs. Schmidt, sadly, the village bicycle. Conversely, trading biblical allusions for those in philosophy, the Doctor's story recalls Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," where the "imprisoned" Doctor escapes his confines to see the world as it is (once, broaching the threshold of death's door, and secondly, hearing the warning sound of bells in a distant, solitary church), until he, in the end, shutters his windows and elects to remain in darkness.
The other chief character of interest is in Estike, recently discharged by her own mother from an asylum. Estike is young and mentally unwell, perhaps even a sociopath. This psychological profile more or less confirmed when we spend half an hour with her as she tortures and poisons her cat as an apparent pretense of her want for control over another. The scene is troubling, and as much as Tarr reaffirms us that an animal specialist was on-set during the filming of these violent scenes, you still cannot help but feel the cat suffered. However, unlike the definition of a sociopath, Estike seems to show remorse, later accosting the roving Doctor in an apparent cry for help, to revive the limp body she now carries in her arms. Earlier, her younger brother helps her dig a hole in a grove, lying to her as he tells her the collection of coins he has in a seed-like pouch will later grow to have more money. This would be the first of three graves she digs.
A staple of postmodernist literature, as Tarr adapts László Krasznahorkai's novel of the same name (with Krasznahorkai co-writing the script), the film, like its formalist styling, takes to wayward, deliberately delinquent, storytelling. To reiterate, the plot of the film, while accessible, acquiesces to the cinematic theatrics. We are more concerned with the logistics of cleaning one's recently-entered genitals than we are with the apparent "Gunpowder, Treason & Plot" scheme orchestrated by Irimiás and his fellow conspirators. The story, split into twelve chapters, constantly reframes the story with different points of view: as a cat is being tossed about and hung in a net, the Doctor must be, at the same time, recording accounts of the villagers' activities, and Futaki must be lazying in the aftermath of a rendezvous with Mrs. Schmidt.
Very much like the film's formality, the characters here are caught in a perpetual state of drunkenness, lethargy; a perpetual state of moving liquids as rain constantly assails the landscape outside while, inside, exorbitant quantities of alcohol slosh about in stomachs. After relocating to a distant manor (and after sharing a drink of brandy with one another), the company of villagers fall asleep, with the omniscient narrator speaking on their dreams and nightmares with Freudian psychoanalysis — as if the fears and dreams, their hopes and miseries found within their dreamy slumber speak volumes on them as characters. For example, the unofficial village harlot in Mrs. Schmidt dreams of flying away as a peaceful bird, when otherwise her outward appearance as presented to us depicts her as caustic, virile, and oppressed.
I have seen this "mislabeled" as a comedy, but it would seem the only source of comedy is in watching an inebriated Mr. Schmidt balance a cheese roll on his forehead, occasionally sitting down after taking a chance to mosey through a small crowd of excitable dancers as if to test his ability to keep the roll balanced. A black comedy, undoubtedly, but this would be the darkest of the dark when it comes to comedy if so. Yet... the film is not without at least one fart joke, as one would find. The most violent part of the film (aside from a brawl leading to a broken nose) is in the dismantling of a bookshelf, a scene which may as well be paired with the demolition of the office printer in Office Space, the absolute last film I would ever think of to compare with this.
As a brief detour into technique, Tarr often takes to what I can only best describe as a "horizontal plane" of triangles when positioning his characters within the frame, best depicted here. In other films, where triangles are often seen with characters in different placements of characters in the frame(recently discussed in my reviews for Kurosawa's films), this shows the depth of triangular staging and blocking.
For several years have I wanted to get my hands on a copy of Sátántangó. I believe was even our good friend, Darren Carver-Balsiger, who officially endorsed it for me some years back. It is not available in the States in any real, easily attainable form; as if this picture were the lost Dead Sea Scrolls of international cinema for this ocean-locked cinephile in North America. But the recent acquisition of a region-free player allowed these ravenous hands (and wallet) voyage to the UK, where they had their own blu-ray release. Indeed, it comes to reason here, coupled with this film's massive critical reputation, that I wanted so desperately to find me loving this; perhaps even situating it among the few films I have given a full 10 stars to.
But it was not to be, I found. This is a great piece of work, a singular, tremendous film, but a masterpiece this yet remains for my end of the bargain. Perhaps another ten years down the line will find me reading the film differently. For now, however, I will let stay the glorious image of conspirators walking down a fiercely windy street, the likeness of their character blowing about them: trash.
Watched this is one sitting today (with bathroom breaks), which just makes you feel like you can now take on any cinematic epic now. That's still a "no thank you" to Andy Warhol's "Empire" though.