It may be facile to compare Béla Tarr to Andrei Tarkovsky, but both are masters of the long take, capable of assigning an emotional weight to a picture that drags out long after any meaning can be gleaned from it. As his camera floats through the community farm in Sátántangó, Tarr captures the same je ne sais quoi that Tarkovsky brought to his own work to make it inexplicably captivating and magical. Indeed, Sátántangó may be the most captivating seven-hour film ever made.
Where Tarr differs from his Russian antecedent, however, is the mindset behind the long, emotional journeys on which he takes the characters and audience. Tarkovsky used his camera to search for the spiritual, where the emotions of Tarr's epic works are rooted in a deep sense of irony and, not misanthropy, precisely, but a certain sense of disappointment with humanity. Indeed, the communal farm of Sátántangó is not far removed from the self-destructing town of Werckmeister Harmonies: with the fall of Communism promising a different standard of living for these farmers, any hope of change is crushed by man's indefatigable capacity for cruelty and pettiness.
The fall of Communism frees the families living on the farm to leave, in some cases to return to separated families, each with a tidy sum as recompense. All of the farm's residents want to leave, yet everyone breaks into factions, scheming to increase their share (isn't it funny how, after "liberation" from a supposedly Communist system, these villagers seem to have bottom-line capitalism all figured out?). They halt their plans, however, when the mysterious Irimias (Mihály Vag, also Tarr's long-time composer) returns to the commune after years of absence. Why he left, he does not say -- and when he eventually does it's impossible to trust him -- but his return sparks in the farm a warped mixture of distaste and reverence, like a religious figure they no longer believe in but continue to worship out of some misplaced sense of hope. Without missing a beat,Irimias begins to play the townsfolk at their own game; a police officer recruits Irimias and his partner Petrina to monitor the commune, but Irimias only takes notes on the villagers as he contemplates how to con them.
Structured, as the title suggests, like a tango, the film moves circuitously around the plot, moving forward and, often, to the side in its 12 distinct parts. It folds back on itself to offer the same events from different perspectives;Irimias is recruited in Part Two, but he does not offer any indication that he's been keeping tabs on the townspeople until Part Eleven. The "protagonists" of Parts Three and Five pass by a pub where people dance, but we do not go inside to chart these dancers until Part Six, at which point we see, through the almost absurd length Tarr allots to their drunken, sloppy dancing, just how inept and stupid these people really are.
The combination of this structure with the film's length allows Tarr to veer into extraneous stories that prove vital to the overall thematic impact. Part Three concerns an old, obese, alcoholic doctor who spends his days locked in his house spying on his neighbors as if James Stewart in Rear Window. He becomes our first source of detail in this strange, self-contained world, yet after he finishes sketching and documenting one house in precise detail, we spot him simply referring to an old sketch for another house. It's a darkly comedic send-up of revisionism, that the doctor establishes himself as someone who sees the truth around him but in fact only documents what he wants to see when he peeps on his neighbors. As time wears on -- this segment alone lasts a staggering yet captivating hour -- the doctor runs out of booze and must brave the outdoors to secure more swill. His prolonged stumbling is hilarious in its anticlimactic movement; when he at last does trip and fall,Tarr's camera captures the action in an extreme long shot which makes the clichéd act of a drunk falling funnier than it's been since youngsters like Chaplin got their start playing drunks a century ago.
Another wide diversion from Irimias' plotting, and the film's best sequence, is one of the most tragic and unsettling segments I have ever seen. A young adult tricks his little sister out of her savings, and to vent her frustration she tortures and poisons a cat -- it should be noted that a veterinarian was on-set and the cat in question was Tarr's own pet. With close-ups into her mad eyes, Tarr reveals the young girl's madness long before another character in another part of the film reveals her history of mental illness. After poisoning the cat and walking around all night,Estike takes some of the rat poison herself and dies. By this point we are all but completely allied against this horrible demon, but an accompanying voiceover adds an air of tragedy and sadness to the scene by giving us a small insight into her warped thoughts.
This horrific sequence may seem unrelated to the rest of the story, but it reveals the ultimate truth of Sátántangó: for all the greed on display, the film primarily concerns the innate need for humans to exert power of something or someone. The brother tricked his sister because he knew he could exploit her, and in her pain she reached out to the only thing she could hurt. Why does the military/police want Irimias to report on the villagers? We never learn, but information is power and can be used to exert control on people.
Irimias himself, of course, represents the desire to control with more terrifying transparency than anyone else. It's easy to compare villains without motives to Iago, the great insoluble antagonist, but Irimias represents that which makes Iago so frightening: he is completely, unabashedly amoral. He convinces the townspeople to pool their money for a vague scheme he proposes to guarantee their prosperity, though he cares marginally for the cash. No, his plots exist simply to test how much control he can exert over these fools. In one brilliant manipulation, one villager smells something fishy and asks for his money back. Of course you can have your money back,Irimias assures the man that he can have his money, but he won't be allowed to participate in Irimias' plan (see: Sawyer, Tom, fence). In the film's funniest sequence, Part Eleven, two government clerks collect Irimias ' documented notes into an official report, and we learn the depths of the con man's revulsion with these simpering, gullible idiots.
Like Werckmeister Harmonies, Sátántangó ends with an old man, in this case the doctor, emerging from his home in a sudden display of virility to gauge the aftermath of the film's actions. Unlike the composer who finds a casual satisfaction in nature's reassertion of authority -- of power -- the doctor wanders through the commune depressed to be the one left behind. He hears the sound of bells that we heard seven hours ago and traces them to the ruins of an old church, where an odd man repeatedly yells "The Turks are coming!" The villagers have all been dispersed, duped by Irimias' con, and the formerly suspicious and spiteful doctor returns to his house and boards the window, terrified in his solitude. One might call this nihilistic, but the old man seems more depressed that people aren't around him anymore -- even if all he ever did was spy on them -- than cravenly barricading himself against the world.
You might be asking yourself at this point if Sátántangó is perhaps too long. Yes, it is, if your idea of "proper" length extends only to a reasonable time to reach the end of a narrative. Sátántangó could easily be condensed down to 3 hours, maybe less. But that would omit its atmosphere; at seven hours, Tarr's film never lags. Remarkably, for its epic length, the film is not an epic; like the best works of Robert Altman, Sátántangó never moves outside of a small community of characters (albeit a large cast compared to most films), but through its graceful documentation of this village Tarr makes profound, uncompromising statements on the nature of power and its corrupting influence. Taken with his equally affected follow-up Werckmeister, Sátántangó is a work of vision and genius, one of finest examples of film as high art ever constructed.