Lara Pop’s review published on Letterboxd:
Béla Tarr is like a negative image in the photography of cinema. He is a filmmaker who neither guides, nor expects his audience to reconstruct the original. The origin therefore lies in the destination, and the process of getting there and imbuing it with meaning: in the audience. Or, more precisely, in the audience's perspective.
Sátántangó is about the multiplicity of perspectives enmeshed in the negative of life. On the literal plane, Tarr uses perspective shifts to relate concrete occurrences in the narrative. He recounts the same events from multiple perspectives, and shows how a different view can deconstruct the original image and create a negative (or vice versa). A little girl walks up to the bar in the night and sees the villagers dancing and drinking merrily inside. She might think they're happy, or rather, reflect on her own unhappiness through the negative she sees in front of her. In the next chapter, the same event is shown from the perspective of the villagers in the bar. Outside and inside merge, and although they depict the same, the perception couldn't be more different.
Thus we arrive at the figurative plane. Tarr seems to create subjective realities for each character and thereby show their actions. As we have seen, the actions themselves don't matter because they show bare happenings without perspective. Tarr transcends narrative cinema exactly by showing narrative cinema. He doesn't ask the audience to see his world from any of his character's eyes, but from all at the same time. He lets the viewer pass his own judgment in a realm of no right or wrong, only of images and their countless negatives, each with a different shade.
The bar sequence is a pivotal scene. The villagers drunkenly whirl to the monotone rhythm of a tango music. From the perspective of the little girl, it looks like a happy dance. But when we see the event unfold from dancers' perspective, we see the true motive behind their action. They are afraid. But of what?
Again on the literal plane, they are afraid of a man called Irimiás. He is a merging of perspectives on his own. He views himself as a messiah whose every action is justifiable because he himself says so. The villagers fear his arrival because they see him as a dangerous man, although they are unable to pinpoint why. They feel there's something inherently wrong with him, but its meaning eludes their simple minds. Why? Because they need direction, a goal in life that they can pursue. Anything but being stranded in a lifeless village of mud and rain and motionlessness. What they want is to be free – and Irimiás seems to give them the freedom they seek. He arrives the day after the dance in the bar and convinces the villagers he can guide them to a new, better life if they follow him. The villagers fear him and do not trust him, but their desire to be free gets the better of them – thus they flock after the false prophet.
As I said earlier, the actions themselves of the characters are of the least matter. The film never explains Irimiás's concrete intentions, although there are hints of explosives and 'blowing them all up'. Tarr's subtlety blows my mind: what he highlights instead of the explicit narrative is the perspective of Irimiás and how he is able to influence not only the villagers but the villagers' perspective through his own. The villagers mistrust Irimiás but he gives them the hope of motion (it doesn't matter where or why, but simply moving for moving's sake) – and thus their perspective shifts; they find comfort in what he offers, and believe in the mirage of moving on to a better life.
We must snake back to the bar scene again. There is an earlier scene where an officer tells Irimiás that people shouldn't be but are afraid of freedom. Tarr's greatest irony thus manifests itself. The night before Irimiás arrives, why are the villagers dancing in fear of his arrival? Why don't they simply run away and become free according to their wishes, before he arrives? Why do they get drunk and stay clutched in their own endless inaction instead? The answer is simple: because it is in fact not Irimiás they fear – but freedom itself.
The story of the villagers is a tragedy, rendered all the more powerful by their thinking they are headed to something better. They are ensnared by themselves in their quest for something they are scared to commit to – and thus become captives not only to a false Jesus (Irimiás) but to their own inner Satan. It is then easy to see the significance of the title and the bar dance scene: it is not a heavenly tango as seen from the eyes of the little girl – but a satanic harbringer of their own unseen destruction.
If I finished my narrative here, Sátántangó would remain a tale of utter bleakness and nihilism. There is no hope to be found in the villagers' own folly and willing subjection to a deceptive Satan (both Irimiás and freedom). But this is where Tarr's genius truly lies, and this is where we need to go back to my introductory concept of an original picture and its negative. Because there is one character whose perspective is the negative to that of the villagers, and who, most importantly, wraps up Tarr's narrative of perspectives in one cycle of life and death. This character is the doctor.
The doctor gives Sátántangó both its frame and its hope at the core. The film starts out with bells ringing and the doctor's narration 'Futaki woke to the sound of bells', and ends the same way. It is easy to run into the mistake of attributing this frame to a simple signaling of life and at the end, death. But again, it is not the fact of their being that matters, but what their being means to each character.
The villagers were afraid of freedom – the doctor finds freedom in death. To the villagers, moving was a matter of life and death; they thought they were progressing but in truth they stayed in the same spot – the doctor is physically stranded in one place (he is an overweight alcoholic and can barely move around in his own house), and yet spiritually, he reaches to heaven. To the villagers, the negative of life was death – to the doctor, it is the folly of life. And death? Death is his freedom.
Sátántangó closes with the doctor hearing the sound of bells. He steps out of his physical inertia to investigate, and finds comfort in the death knell of his own motionlessness. He feels calm as he boards up his house, unaware that the village is empty because everyone has left. It doesn't matter because inside, he feels the opposite of emptiness; he feels at peace. He is the only character who finds an inner peace that is not deceptive or warped by other perspectives. It is a perspective that is pure and that he can truly call his own – one that merges the original and the negative into one, creating a serene unity in the face of death.
Thanks for the patience, guys. This is one of those rare movies where I really struggled with a review for fear of not doing it justice. There are so many ehmm... perspectives to take into account that Tarr really just seamlessly weaves into his narrative. It is impossible to talk about each on their own, and equally difficult to create a coherent, (somewhat) reader-friendly web that includes all and is clear, yet retains Tarr's complexity. Well, I tried. Hope you can get some enjoyment or enlightenment out of it. But all the blubber aside, all I can say is watch this movie, guys. I looove it so much.