evilbjork’s review published on Letterboxd:
Sátántangó is one of the monoliths of cinema. A film that more people know the name of and even have an opinion of than have actually seen. It's known almost exclusively for its length, which is 7 hours and 12 minutes. It's far from the only movie of this length, and far from the longest there is to find, and yet this film has become by far the most notorious film above 4 hours. The overbearing amount of conversation around its length can leave some feeling like there isn't much else to this, but this is one of the greatest achievements in film history.
It's a film about the fall and failure of communism in Hungary. Communism ended in Hungary in 1989 and was still painfully fresh in the minds of Hungarian citizens. Although Béla Tarr has made it clear that he has issues with capitalism as well and this film seems to touch on that as well. Most of the film takes place on a single day, with scenes being repeated multiple times from different character perspectives. This day is special because it is the return of Irimiás to the small village. He's a charming man who was thought to be dead and the word of his return sends reverberations throughout the village.
The entire cast of characters are memorable. You have the charming and manipulative Irimiás who might be in over his head, the mentally ill girl Estike who acts out violently due to her father's suicide, the paranoid drunk doctor that spends all day spying on the villagers, and Futaki who seems like the only one who is taking care of himself in this desolate village.
Béla Tarr is one of the great masters of slow cinema and this film exemplifies that. The shots are long, some reaching 10 minutes and this was all shot on film when a usual shot canister only held 10 minutes of film total. He shoots in a way to let you breathe with the scene and feel like you're there. It's not just annoying long shots with nothing happening, but the kind of stillness that you experience in real life. The black and white film makes everything look stunning and perfectly reflects the despair of the village.
A couple of things I find interesting about this movie. First is that some people have pointed out how the cop station scene is the most conventionally shot scene of the movie, and that may be to reflect the order of police in the directing. It's an interesting way to have meaning showing in the directing. Another thing that I noticed on this watch was how there's the fat doctor is constantly spying on the citizens of the village which may work as a representation of the paranoid control of the USSR, then you have Irimiás who is charming and manipulates the people into giving up their money, he could represent the capitalist opposite.
I think one thing to keep in mind is that although this is a huge, powerful film, it's not dense or complicated in really any way. It's not the kind of art house film where all the enjoyment comes from interpreting it afterward. There are things to interpret and meaning to pull from it of course, but mainly the movie is about the story and experience. This story could have been told in an hour and a half, but that completely misses the point of the movie. It's about the experience. Going through what the characters go through and being forced to sit and think about what's happening.
It's one of the greatest films of all time and one of the greatest cinematic experiences. It sticks with you and you might be surprised about how much you'll want to experience it a second time.