reibureibu’s review published on Letterboxd:
Before diving into anything I have to say, I want to plug the reviews of Abdel, Darren Carver-Balsiger, Edgar Cochran, JADE., Lara Pop, and Reed for having some of the best pieces on this I've read so far. If you're looking for good analysis of the film itself, please check these out as they do a far greater job of analyzing the film than I ever could.
As for me, I don't wish to attempt an analysis as I don't feel qualified to add much to the discussion. Rather, I'm opting for a synthesis which puts Sátántangó in conversation with another work that engages in similar themes, Pathologic 2. This is an angle I haven't seen yet explored and I assume most people likely haven't played it, so a bit of summarizing is in order:
Pathologic 2 is a sequel-slash-remake of the original Pathologic, a Russian survival video-game that can be best described as a "plague management sim" done through the perspective of a first-person playable character. It centers on a pre-ruin analogue of Sátántangó's own village, just under its own process of disintegration. Said town is fated to fall to said plague (dubbed 'Sand Plague') and you have twelve in-game days to find a cure and minimize deaths, a task much easier said than done as you are constantly at a resource deficiency which you must manage wisely between saving townsfolk and attending to your own needs (hunger, thirst, immunity, and more). The clock is constantly ticking down and you will find it impossible to do everything you want in a day, forced to make choices on which characters to see and save, which also causes unforseen ripples down the line. Prices quickly skyrocket as the trains have stopped coming, and the water barrels you took for granted are either dried up or infected. Eventually, madmen roam the streets and you must weave between lepers, soldiers, and literal floating clouds of plague manifestations in order to give the last of your own medicine to those who may not even survive the night. The devil works hard, but you have to work harder.
-Spoilers for Pathologic 2 below this, stop reading if you care!-
Notably, the three playable characters in the original Pathologic are the Bachelor (a studied doctor who uses western, scientific methods), the Haruspex (a spiritual healer who uses herbs), and the Changeling (a miracle worker who uses religious powers). The Bachelor and the Changeling are on opposite ends of the axis whereas the Haruspex lies somewhere in the middle. Like the Doctor in Sátántangó, the Bachelor is jaded and disillusioned, believing the town to be full of uneducated fools who constantly interrupt his self-important work, and like Irimiás, the Changeling becomes a de facto cult leader, a God-like figure who manipulates the minds of the villagers; the Haruspex doesn't have a clean stand-in figure, though this isn't as necessary since he lies at the midpoint of science vs religion.
Irimiás and the Doctor are, appropriately, the two most prominent figures in the film. Whereas the other villagers are so crestfallen that they have little capacity to function outside of wallowing in their own despair, these two still have the capability to perform their own agendas. Sátántangó then represents a pessimistic future of Pathologic 2, one where the Changeling no longer cares about the well-being of the village outside of her own amusement, and where the Bachelor only continues his work of healing the town for the sake of accolade and accolade alone. Both science and religion have failed this place, principles of progress on both ends of the spectrum that were not enough to resuscitate the past. It is as if the village is already dead, each villager a purgatorial ghost continuing their daily drivel unaware that it's time for them to move on.
Towards the end of Pathologic 2, the nature of the Sand Plague is revealed to be much more than just a simple disease. It is a manifestation of the Earth's pain from the damage wrought by the Polyhedron, a skyscraping construct of architectural wonder which comes to represent utopian visions of progress at all costs. This reverse Tower of Babel was built knowing it would cause great harm, quite literally piercing the heart of Earth and using it as a stabilizing fulcrum. The Sand Plague is such the Earth's response to those utopian ideals which inadvertently become dystopic.
Likewise, the 'plague' which ravages the Hungarian village of Sátántangó is not literal but spiritual. Even before the town itself has fallen into ruin, it is the collapse of a collective farm which marks the onset of this spiritual plague. Others will do a much greater job of unpacking the history and politics of Sátántangó, but very briefly: this film (and most of Béla Tarr's filmography) reflects the poverty and despair that manifested under the authoritarian rule of communism in eastern Europe. This is the Polyhedron, the pursuit of a utopian vision which breaks with tradition and the construction of wonderful things at the expense of the individual.
Whereas Sátántangó ends with a sense of nihilistic fatalism, Pathologic 2 allows for a possible future. However, even then that future comes at a terrible cost, to the point where we may prefer such fatalism. One either destroys the Polyhedron which then ruptures the Earth's heart – stopping the Sand Plague by quite literally killing the Earth – thereby saving the townfolk but destroying all history and tradition; or keeps the Polyhedron intact which preserves the Earth and its clay peoples, but allows for the Sand Plague to wipe out every last human alive. Even when making the best of what we can, the failures of our past may make it so there is no success without undue sacrifice. The devil works hard, and he always gets his dues.