reed’s review published on Letterboxd:
The distant bells at the beginning, throbbing again and again, set the stage for repetition as a common thread throughout Satantango. The clock ticking in a room as we sit in silence with Futaki and Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt (the rain outside also forming a sound pattern). And inside the inn a clock ticks in more of a lilt, a 3/4 meter that becomes hypnotizing after a while. The clacking of typewriters as Petrina and Irimias enter the captain's office and help seal the fate of the rest of the story. The muddy footsteps, methodically moving forward. So many scenes dedicated to just the characters walking, assaulted by the wind, rain, and leaves. The sound of the wagons pulling the villagers' possessions as they abandon their home, first in the background and then reaching an uproar as we near the building they'll be staying.
Even the music is repetitive. The adults in the town gather at an inn and dance for hours. The accordion plays a jaunty folk tune. Once, now twice, now three times, and so on, the tune keeps repeating for the extended ten minute sequence. The dance numbers are circular in form and they always loop back around to each other, and also in the sense that we never even see the dance start.
There are fragments of several repeated scenes throughout as well. The doctor watches as Futaki goes to confront Mr. Schmidt about the money, and we see the pig pictured in both of these scenes. Another significant moment first shows Estike peering into the inn as the drunk villagers dance, and in a subsequent scene Estike's head appearing from inside the inn. And as many of the remaining villagers decide to follow Irmidias's plan and leave the village, the camera first zooms out behind the innkeeper, and then 50 minutes later zooms out in front of him. In fact, there is even a single shot that repeats itself three times; the characters sit sleeping and the omnipresent narrator tells us of their dreams and nightmares. The camera circles around them in the same slow motion once, then twice, then three times.
Minimalism in music and film are different, and to me, Satantango seems minimalist in a musical way. What composers like Reich and Glass do is take the most bare musical idea possible and expand it into twenty minutes or an hour of music, namely through repetition and variation (both of which would not work without the other). By doing this, they throw traditional exposition and development out the window in favor of a more present-focused piece. Something like Simeon ten Holt's hour-long Canto Ostinato gives us its basic chord structure and then builds it to different climaxes in a variety of ways. But part of the magic of the piece is that sometimes you can't even tell anything has changed at all until you flip back ten minutes and realize that, oh my god, that's an entirely different key signature and tempo.
This somewhat sums up my experience with Satantango. Compared to other movies, it's shot-style is not only extremely different but extremely more repetitive in the best way possible. There can't be a take here shorter than a minute (there probably is but you get my point), and this allows for the variation-through-time effect. As you might have been able to see from the running length, it's so time-consuming to do this; every shot simultaneously working on its own as a minimalist "piece" but fitting into the whole narratively as well. Because, yes, this is significant to the story. I will say, however, that even as a "gimmick", this is a style of filmmaking that is heavily impressive and I would probably vibe with it even it was less thematically and narratively rewarding.
The story itself also moves at a minimalist and repetitive pace, and not just because how slow it is. Part of the main premise listed on Letterboxd doesn't even begin until four hours into the movie, and that feels natural for what the movie is going for. There are very rare moments when an actual shift feels jarring; the one I can think of is the very opening shot of Chapter 7, Estike's body surrounded by the villagers as we realize what has happened and the tragedy of the situation sinks in. This is fitting because Chapter 7 both literally (there are 12 chapters) and narratively opens the second half of the movie. Most of the other shots here seep their way into revealing any information about where the story is going, much like movements in a minimalist piece of music.
After seven hours of this, it's excruciating. It's amazing. No other movie I've seen has been brave enough to frustrate the audience like this one. There's a scene where two villagers assault another over money they thought they had been swindled out of. The camera does not show the assault during this intense scene. It calmly slides to Mrs. Schmidt's face as she stands listening to the events. Tarr is using the mind-numbing repetition of both sounds and structures within each shot and the slow, painful, way threads of conflicts are introduced in a very deliberate way; the hopelessness and difficulty of the situation is slammed down on us. It was hard to breathe during parts of the movie, sometimes because of its beauty but mostly because of the crushing repetition; it's a movie both agonizing and necessary to watch.