Satantango ★★★★★

Rural Hungary. A small village loses its communal mill, its chief source of income during the Soviet occupation and a symbol of the communist ideal. But those days are gone, and the villagers have stolen the money, scattered back to their homes and now argue about how to split it. But there’s word that one of their own, someone they thought long dead, is returning. On the heals of foul weather, the intelligent and well spoken, yet perpetually chastising, Irimiás comes home. Buy his sweet words belie a sinister motive as he represents the new capitalist ideal - theft. (Lol, if you thought profit)

For the characters in Bela Tarr’s 7.5-hour epic allegory “Sátántangó,” life is forever like a sheep in search of a shepherd - someone to lead them. But those who are smart enough, and listen close enough, can hear the bells of the true authority - God.

This mammoth film, which feels as heavy to sit through as its description sounds, pushes through its massive runtime and weighty themes through the strength of Tarr’s absolutely singular vision and his determination to get there. Composed in 12 segments that jump back and forth in chronology (six moves forward, six moves back, like a tango), the film’s rarely in closeup but instead almost entirely composed of long takes of characters moving through wide spaces.

Filming this way allows Tarr to accomplish several goals. As it is often said about films that employ long unbroken shots, the effect on the audience is cinematic submersion. Cuts create a distancing effect from audiences as they are artificial and remind us what we are watching isn’t real. Within long takes, our world becomes that of the world of the film. Tarr helps sell this philosophy with sparing use of music, allowing dialogue and sound effects to aid in the audience submersion. 

Next, the film’s long arduous shots reflect the inner turmoil of its characters. If Tarr’s goal is to elevate this ensemble tale of mundane Hungarian peasants to the level of religious allegory, he accomplishes this by employing shots and sequences that reflect the enormous weight each decision has on each character. Tarr aligns them with the existential concepts as Heaven, Hell and the Apocalypse through his long and precise takes. Specific images also help accomplish this goal as more long takes linger on the majesty of animals - herds of cattle, teams of horses, webs of spiders and a single, solitary (and forever memorable) owl. 

Tarr attaches a never-seen narrator to comment at the end of the film’s 12 segments. The result is a distancing effect as it frames the film as an observation of its characters and their actions. Tarr uses slow camera moves, dollying left and right of any given scene, and  accompanies them with Mihey Vig’s (lead actor and composer) calliope-sounding soundtrack to create a funhouse-like feeling - as if the film’s many miseries are but attractions in an amusement park, passing in front of us on a mobile track, for us to enjoy and ponder.

As the film progresses, and it winds back its timeline to reveal another emotional layer, its full aspirations reveal themselves. In the film’s back half, the character Itimiás and his forked tongue rise to bring the film’s ambitions into focus. The chapters of misery we’ve previously witnessed transform themselves into an odyssey - a quest, possibly into the divine. It’s only through the time that Tarr has invested does that transformation successfully happen.

This recommendation can’t come without a warning. There is a scene of animal cruelty involving a cat. No matter how much Tarr’s subsequent interviews repeatedly state that the cat was not harmed, the shot as it stands is inexcusable. If you can’t forgive the film for it, you’re not at fault.

If you can, try to push past it. As Sátántangó reaches its final chapter, it abandons the plight of its main characters to focus instead on a satellite character, and in doing so offers a stunning revelation about the reality of a sound we’ve heard all the way through. It’s a revelation that puts the entire film in a different context. It is the film’s most memorable sequence and lifts it into one of the greats of all time. 

Sátántangó is famous for the hyperbole of praise surrounding it, and it’s tempting to push against that. It’s not without its own self-importance, and Tarr’s reputation does little to sway that.

But I promise if you rise up to the challenge, you will be rewarded with a parable that lays clear the motivations of all mankind.

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