Darren Carver-Balsiger’s review published on Letterboxd:
Spoilers ahead. Though this film cannot really be spoiled.
A dance with the devil. Sátántangó is colossal, a work whose incredible length is matched only by its philosophical depth and pessimism. It is a film about the ills of pessimism, though told as if such pessimism cannot be avoided. Sátántangó is about an apocalypse, about a society watching itself descend in despair. The reason Sátántangó is so long is that it adapts László Krasznahorkai's source novel absolutely, excluding nothing. The book was published in 1985 and thus written during communist rule in Hungary. Sátántangó may represent some kind of dystopia, but as the economy stagnated and collective farming collapsed this world may have felt very real. The characters are dirtied and impoverished, but while exaggerated here similar things may have been a reality at the time. The majority of Hungarian housing didn't even have piped water in the 1980s. The film has an ambiguous setting, reflecting a netherworld of steady Hungarian suffering. There was much change politically between the release of the book and the film, but did pain ever stop? Whether a communist world or a free market one, this tale of the void still applies. It is about power structures, or rather the lack of leaders and inspiration within collapsing communities. These are nihilist times, there is no point in living. The landscape is sparse and grey, famine is not an impossibility, and there is no salvation coming from God. Sátántangó is about the quiet of a dead world. A dying world does not shriek in terror, it is instead muffled out by darkness.
Sátántangó opens with cows wandering around a desolate farm. Their aimless lives destined for nothing reflects the people who live in the film's central village. It is now a place without purpose, just people waiting for some kind of relief from their suffering. The villagers are mean, selfish, and cowardly to varying extents. In the very first section of the film we witness some willing to steal and escape, leaving the others to die. Later on the film narrates the simplistic, crude dreams of the villagers. They are a people with nothing, stuck within a ruined community and rudderless society. A rotting indifference has grown within them, allowing selfishness to rise and others to suffer. A child is ignored until she dies. It is the ultimate act of indifference. The villagers dance for the devil whilst the child cannot even enter their temporary joy. These people spend the night in a bar dancing continually and repeating the same words over and over, a mimicry of their repetitive, numbing lives. They have the faces of people lost. They have nothing to do but drink and wait for their prophet to arrive, because that is all they can cling to in their desperate, sad, lonely ways. Everywhere there is rain and mud, life a slow trudge through the cold. It is the most worthless existence. Yet above all it is a cruel existence. A girl is tricked by her own brother into burying her money and then spirals into despair. She tortures a cat, for suffering begets suffering. Béla Tarr uses animals symbolically in Sátántangó, with cows, cats, pigs, spiders, and owls all featured. His use of animals, notably a whale and a horse, continued into his next films too. Within Sátántangó the cat represents the one thing the girl has power over. Her brother has power over her, and a false prophet has power over him. But with the cat, she has power, and like all power within Sátántangó it is sociopathic and cruel. When she wanders with the corpse of the cat and witnesses the village's indifference towards her, she becomes powerless, she becomes the corpse. "Everything that happens is good", she thinks as she dies. Her death is inevitable because that's what happens to the powerless.
Irimiás is a prophet who seeks to profit. If anybody is the main character of Sátántangó it is him. He is the man the villagers wait for. He is back from the dead, a man resurrected, a new Jesus. Like Jeremiah, he has arrived to reveal the sins of the people and the destruction to come. The community at the centre of Sátántangó is leaderless, but Irimiás the god is here now. He is a man who promises solutions. The people don't know what has caused their problems, but they are willing to follow anybody with a solution (a theme followed up on in Werckmeister Harmonies). But the people need to be wary of charismatic leaders. Irimiás's resurrection is a sham and a lie. He doesn't want to liberate anybody, just to research the state of the world. He arrives to exploit a terrible tragedy. He posits that the villagers have a collective responsibility for the girl's death and calls out their cowardice. He makes them abandon their village and destroy their past. To Irimiás these people are slaves without a master, servants who live in poverty because they are too lazy to better themselves. Irimiás is satanic, with a godlike ability to control others, knowledge beyond compare that allows him to know events he did not witness, and absolutely no empathy whatsoever. He walks through eternity to sow disorder. As soon as he goes, people turn on each other. However Irimiás understands these villagers. He knows they are not rebels and will always ultimately conform. They are melancholy, but they will not resist. Irimiás does not promise the villagers anything new, for they have no imagination or ambition. He promises them a new collective farm, a repeat of what they had before. People don't want change. Yet ironically Irimiás manages to scatter everyone, completely separating them in the name of unity. He has created a structure of operatives, which the authorities are aware of. He has placed them under state control again, but now they are individuals with the illusion of freedom.
In the second chapter of Sátántangó Irimiás meets with a police captain. The Captain exists in a clean building, for he is above and beyond the villagers in the rest of the movie. The state is bureaucratic and sterile, outside harsh realities. The Captain lectures Irimiás on order and freedom. He argues people fear freedom even if they think they want it. Yet simultaneously they are comforted by order, even though they think it frightening. Sátántangó is about authority and power. The village is a place without an authority, and in that absence a false prophet can arrive. The Captain is "the law itself", a representative of the state. He is uninterested in Irimiás's chaos, unless it can be used to create order. The state doesn't need the village to survive, it just needs the people controlled.
Béla Tarr is a master of cinema. Sátántangó is his magnum opus. It is arguably his greatest structural achievement and almost certainly his most formally perfect work. It's less showy than Werckmeister Harmonies and The Turin Horse, but every shot is masterful and thoughtful, and despite the reputation they aren't all long takes. Instead Sátántangó is a slow dance, a movie that moves to a rhythm naturally. With its pace and style, Sátántangó eventually becomes transcendent. The film is split into twelve sections, a tango with six steps forward and six steps back. The first six sections are the wait for Irimiás to arrive in the village. These first four hours therefore exist as setup. The film spends it first half constantly recontextualising events, as plot points are seen from different angles. Sátántangó is not chronological, it is a collection of simultaneous stories that reach a central midpoint, then splinter out again in the second half. Tarr's approach is not to explain things, but to show things literally. Cinema does not have true ambiguity, a cup onscreen is just a cup. Tarr's long takes and slow realism are the ultimate form of literal cinema in a sense. The story being told may be an allegory, but the world shown is as literal as possible, so whatever happens offscreen is unknown. We never find out why Irimiás requires explosives for instance, but the film spends time on that. This is a movie to unpick, because its story exists without any direct message or motive. It makes Sátántangó an almost spiritual experience, though the film is not religious. Sátántangó remains absolutely unique within the world of cinema. We may have Lav Diaz and plenty of other filmmakers inspired by Tarr, but Sátántangó is the true pinnacle of long, slow cinema. To be so lengthy, so intricate, and so mysterious, there is no film quite like it.
In Sátántangó there is a doctor who watches and observes events. Everyone else fears death, but not him. He is a man of culture and knowledge, but wastes it all through his complete disillusionment. He doesn't follow Irimiás, so he gets no joy at all. The only time he leaves the house is to collect more brandy. He doesn't care about anyone else. While the village may suffer from a collective indifference, the Doctor most embodies it. He watches likes a god, with the ability to help, but allows all suffering to continue. In the end, the villagers don't care about leaving him behind. The scenes with the Doctor are some of the slowest in Sátántangó, as if we must exist with him in real time. In a way we are him, just watching events with indifference and cynicism. In which case, we have no meaning. The villagers have the freedom they detest, but we have less, just the darkness of a boarded up house and an eventual death all alone. We made no difference at all.