Stephen Gillespie’s review published on Letterboxd:
Béla Tarr’s mammoth epic is defined by stillness and quietude. Using its intimidating length to express its themes, Sátántangó stands apart from many other famously long films. Sono’s Love Exposure uses its runtime to facilitate a large amount of plot; Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (which seems short in this company) uses length to flesh out character and to set the stage for extended action; Kieslowski’s Dekalog uses its considerable span for episodic storytelling - crafting ten short films; while Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (split into three parts) utilises vastness to tell an appropriately vast story.
In Sátántangó, not much - in a conventional sense - happens. The length is used here to convey the crushing weight of time. Most of the film is lengthy shots of very little (the film itself being composed of around 150 shots over a runtime of 432 minutes - an astonishing technical achievement), often just environment or the act of travel. If there is a distance to be crossed in Tarr’s film, or a task to be done, you will see it in its entirety - or close to. This establishes a sense of weariness, and of prosaic struggle, that fully immerses the viewer.
Though the film is about so much, for me it was about time and its weight - how we are stuck in time and how it oppresses us. The film is so beautifully structured, and unveils this beauty in jaw dropping fashion, as you start to realise that new sections actually exist alongside old ones, overlapping in clever ways - but also making you feel trapped in a loop. You think you have moved on, you think you are seeing progression, and then it builds to witnessing the previous sequence from a different angle (or a past scene playing out in the background). Everything feels interconnected but everything also feels stifling - which is a central drive of the film. The rain hammers down and pushes us all back; the journeys are long but we end up in the same place. Progress is illusory and escape impossible.
It is a bleak film. But it is also so beautiful - and often quite funny, though darkly so. You could accuse it of nihilism, perhaps, but it is more a sense of existential despair at cyclical suffering. It is punctuated by rare, but powerful, joy and it does feel meaningful and profound, never just an empty dirge.
The lasting feeling is one enforced by the title, the devil’s tango. All the characters in this dance to the same tune. The repetitions and overlapping sequences mirroring a constrained and repetitive time signature - existence imprisoned by the devil’s dance as we repeat ourselves. It is a representation of hell like no other, using social realism to present a determinism forced onto certain people. This is an empathetic film, a caring one. But, it knows that for some people, in some circumstances due to factors - often large scale political factors - that are so beyond their reach or control, life is a prison - a cycle of looping limitations.
The film starts with cows in the mud. They move randomly, one seems to come towards the camera but it is a coincidence, there’s nothing remarkable here - the cows are just here and they merely move about in the mud. And then we have the villagers. Despite their plans and plots and machinations, they are livestock to larger powers, irrelevant with their lack of agency, yet they persist. There is melancholic beauty here alongside a wider political, or social, critique of how wider society can abandon and dehumanise the unfortunate or the isolated.
Early on in the film, a messianic figure - who functions like a twisted Jesus allegory, returning from a presumed death to take a chosen group to a promised land, led by narratives and rhetoric (this character alone merits an essay) - talks about how humans are to time as twigs are to the wind. For me, this is the lasting message of Sátántangó: time surrounds us, overwhelms us and oppresses us. Time defines us and we live only in it, yet it is ambivalent to us. What is Satan’s Tango, the dance of the devil that we are all fated to follow? Why, it is the rhythm of time itself, a cosmic joke constraining us all.
And this leads us to a moment towards the end, where we discover a chapel in the wilderness, decayed and marked by graffiti - the need for people to leave their mark, to rebel against unfeeling and ever moving time. And we are brought to this chapel by the tolling of a bell, a hypnotic and purposeful rhythm. And we get there, and a man chants and he beats the bell with a possessed passion. And this is it. The sporadic rhythm capturing the eternal beat of time; this holy place merely a decrepit reminder of the inescapable, the ever moving and the inevitable. And it took so long to get here. And that was all there was: time.
Time loudly ringing out, an aural marker that oppresses our ears and forces us to confront the inescapable rhythm of the devil’s tango.