Why Does Sátántangó Work?
Nearly the length of an average workday and most likely longer than your top three movies combined, Bela Tarr's Sátántangó is every cinephile’s Moby Dick. Seven hours and thirty minutes of dirt roads and poor farmers scored by what can only be described as pseudo-carnival music, Sátántangó consists of 150 shots of boredom and despair. Following a small former collective of Hungarian farmers as they’re exploited by their former colleague and friend who they presumed to be dead, Sátántangó is a dry and meandering piece of film that will stretch your patience to the limits and beyond.
Yet, Sátántangó is not bad, in fact I’d say the contrary. Sátántangó is one of the most intimate and affecting pieces of art I’ve seen in my life, and it’s only boosted by the idiosyncratic style. That’s not to say it’s a rip-roaring adventure that never slows down, it’s definitely dry, very dry, but Sátántangó’s boredom is its greatest asset. I know it sounds crazy, but this seven and a half hour Hungarian farmer movie uses boredom to create one of the most hypnotizing, immersive and affecting experiences in all of cinema.
To start, it’s important to view the significance of the film’s title. Sátántangó means "Satan’s tango", six steps forward, six steps back. A constant loop of movement without ever advancing from one place. Throughout the film, our main cast of characters constantly try to advance from their horrid conditions, yet they never seem to find a proper escape. They always find a way to advance six steps forwards, but they constantly find themselves moving six steps back. This pessimistic and nihilistic attitude permeates Sátántangó as well as the rest of Bela Tarr’s filmography. Despite seven and a half hours of runtime, our characters find themselves as they started, dirt poor and unhappy. In a sense, nothing happens. Of course, events transpire, and people live and die, but in the end, our characters didn’t escape. Try as they might, no matter what they do, nothing changes, nothing can change.
It’s this cynical idea of nothingness that makes these long, boring stretches of landscapes in Sátántangó so impactful. When nothing happens in the film, the core ideas are just further reinforced. Instead of having a six minute long take of a dirt road act as an escape from the film’s dour atmosphere, the long take just further emphasizes the despair of the environment. All of a sudden, we, the viewer, experience the same dreary nothingness as the characters. We’re supposed to be bored, but underneath the boredom lies genuine sadness. It’s a strange, lulling hypnosis that works like a suffocating quicksand, yet quietly beautiful.
The key to Sátántangó’s hypnotic dryness is a sense of rhythm. Sátántangó may not have been the first movie to be deliberately boring, but no movie has ever tried to this extent. The boringness in Sátántangó has a pulsating life to it. The bitter sadness that each shot exudes feels as though it’s dancing the sorrowful dance the film is named after. Director, Bela Tarr himself described how a long take unites the entire cast and crew into the same rhythm, and that flow extends right into the heart of the viewer. It’s hard to look away, the slowness and simplicity of the shots grab your attention and subtly pull you into Sátántangó’s miserable world.
Beauty isn’t just sunshine and happiness, it can be sullen, morbid, and achingly sad. Once Sátántangó begins that sinister dance, it’s nearly impossible to look away. It’s truly a tremendous achievement, arguably the most immersive cinematic experience, and you hardly even notice it. The howling winds and dirty walls reach out from the screen and envelop the viewer’s world. The monotony of Sátántangó makes the viewer more present, much like the people of the movie, we cannot escape. After seven-and-a-half-hours, we felt the misery, tedium, and futility of life in the collective, and where are we? The same place as the beginning, empty. Six steps forwards, six steps back. It takes two to tango, and with Sátántangó, the devil really takes you for a long, sad, unforgettable journey that ends right where you started.