Sátántangó opens to a languid, insidiously ironic shot of cattle traversing the muddy field of a near desolate, neglected communal farm in rural Hungary, as the cows concurrently attempt to mate during the process of migration. The clumsy and awkward episode is reflected in the fluidly tracked, change of perspective shot of a disheveled, sparsely furnished room where Futaki (Miklós Székely B.) and Mrs. Schmidt (Éva Almássy Albert) conduct a meaningless, illicit affair – their relationship summarily encapsulated in the indelicate image of Mrs. Schmidt cleansing herself after the sexual encounter in her lover’s presence. With her husband’s unexpected return home, Futaki withdraws to an adjacent room and overhears an underhanded scheme hatched between Schmidt (László Lugossy) and Kráner (János Derzsi) to abscond with the communal farm’s cattle money entrusted to them for delivery into town, with the dream of establishing his own farm. Feigning to arrive at the Schmidt home, Futaki confronts Schmidt with knowledge of their plot and is offered a share of the money in exchange for his silence. However, as Futaki and Schmidt settle their disreputable alliance, Mrs. Schmidt receives word from Mrs. Halics (Erzsébet Gaál) that the near-mythical Irimiás (Mihály Vig) and his omnipresent assistant Petrina (Putyi Horváth), both presumed to be dead, have been spotted on a road leading to the village, heading towards the local pub. The news of Irimiás’s unexpected reappearance is received with equal amounts of anticipation and dread, and gradually, the villagers’ plight unfolds as a series of point-of-view episodes that explore the root of their anxiety towards the return of the town’s prodigal son.
Béla Tarr creates a visually sublime, darkly comic, and understatedly haunting film on complacency, ennui, betrayal, and greed in Sátántangó. A collaborative adaptation of László Krashnahorkai’s first novel, Sátántangó is intricately structured in twelve narratively overlapping, discontinuous chapters, replicating the visual rhythm of the tango. The inherent nonlinearity of the film’s forward and backward episodic movements, particularly evident in the circular, repeated narration of Futaki’s perceived detection of the tolling of nonexistent bells at the beginning and end of the film, underscores the banality and empty, ritualistic existence of the communal farmers. Resigned to a life of aimlessness, despair, and passivity, the film serves as a metaphor for the nation’s inertial resistance to change and inability to adapt to the unfamiliar landscape of liberation and autonomy in post-communist Hungary. Moreover, the themes of self-entrapment and zero displacement are manifested in the delirious, floating tracking shot above the sleeping villagers that echoes an earlier image of nocturnal spiders that emerge to spin their imperceptible web on the unconscious patrons after their meandering, discordant, intoxicated dance – the titular Sátántangó witnessed by the deeply troubled, seemingly deranged girl, Estike (Erika Bók) – a reminder of the psychologically entrenched, moribund lives of the villagers on the collective farm.
Through repeated allusions of the charismatic, mysterious Irimiás as a messianic figure, Tarr further illustrates the spiritual desolation, gullibility, and moral bankruptcy of the villagers: the static, close-up shots of the inexpressive Irimiás that emphasizes his abstracted, seemingly benevolent gaze (reminiscent of Johannes’ framing in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet); his figurative return from the dead; his inexplicable compulsion to kneel before the ruins of an abandoned building as fog momentary rolls in and obscures the view; his redemptive speech that galvanizes the villagers into subscribing to his unrealized vision. Like the elusive Godot of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Irimiás represents the ephemeral: hope, redemption, sense of purpose, salvation. But inevitably, the model farm proves to be a barren reflection of the villagers’ own existential limbo – a bleak, stagnant, and inert wasteland festering in a hopeless, meaningless, and soulless world.
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