Few films use animals to comment on its characters to the extent that Sátántangó does. This thematic conceit is laid out in the film’s notorious opening shot, an 8+ minute tracking shot of cows grazing a barren Hungarian wasteland, moving from one muddy patch to the next with little sense of purpose (and occasionally trying to screw each other). Aside from its purpose as a stylistic rejoinder to the much more audience-friendly pacing and aesthetics of typical films, it functions as an amusing, low-key overture for the rest of the film. Because dumb animals living purposeless lives in flux, and occasionally screwing each other, isn’t far from the mark in describing Sátántangó‘s characters. The people in this film are thoughtless and crude, content to mire around in the muck; only financial opportunity (more to the point, greed, a base instinct) acts as sufficient motivation for them to get off their asses and do something. Even then, they’re led around by the nose as a rabbit might be with a carrot, instead of taking their own initiative.

Sátántangó

Moo.

In Sátántangó, we spend much of our time simply observing people as they go about their daily routines: walking from place to place, meeting with other villagers and discussing minutiae, drinking, etc. One character in particular acts as an audience surrogate: the town doctor, who in other films might act as a sort of moral arbiter or group conscience but here is content to shut himself inside, stare out his window at the other villagers, take meticulous (and wryly commentative) notes on their habits and get drunk as all hell on a massive bottle of fruit brandy. When we’re introduced to this character, it’s through his own perspective, as he spies on a neighbor through a pair of binoculars and sets them down to update one of his many tomes to their lives. When he picks the binoculars back up and spies a dog playing in the mud and trash, briefly pausing to consider this, it’s like the film’s way of asking: “Why not write about him, too?”

As infamous and effective as the film’s opening tracking shot is, it’s not the most important sequence involving animals. That honor goes to Sátántangó‘s fifth (of twelve) “chapters,” the scenes involving Estike, a 10-year-old girl. Earlier in the film, dialogue from her older brother and sisters establishes that she’s mentally ill and has recently returned to the village from an institution.

Estike is an outsider in this village, the only child we ever come across. (Her brother is late teens, her older sisters appear to be in their twenties.) For such a fragile figure – a mentally ill child living a life of abject poverty with nobody her age with whom to socialize – there is no love lost for her. Her mother sends her away so she can get on with another man, her older brother cons her out of her paltry savings and bosses her around after the fact, her sisters refer to her dismissively as “crazy Estike.” Even the drunken doctor cruelly rebuffs her pleas for attention when the two cross paths late one evening outside the village bar; after inadvertently causing him to fall face down in the mud, Estike runs off into the woods.

It becomes clear later why she was so desperate for his attention: the cat she carries at her side for most of the film is dead by her own hand, poisoned after being extensively (but bloodlessly) tortured. Here, we’re provided with another clue to adults’ treatment of Estike (whether by her parents or by her caregivers at the institution). As she torments the cat, she holds it up in front of her by its legs, and tells it “You’ve made a mess in your pants! Where do you get the nerve?” She’s clearly suffered abuse, likely because of her mental issues, and the only outlet she has to exert what little power she has is this cat (“I can do anything I want to you,” says Estike to the cat before thrashing around with it). (It also says something of this dilapidated hellhole that, as best I can tell, torturing a cat is about the only leisure activity available to a kid like Estike; everybody else just drinks, smokes and fucks. It’s like the world’s worst college town.) The cat is Estike’s only real companion, and things are so fucked up that she sees fit to switch from petting it to tormenting it.

As bad as we might feel for that cat – who has done nothing to deserve this horrible treatment – we feel worse for Estike, who had even less say in her lot in life and is consistently treated just as poorly by those who should be taking care of her. Estike’s after-the-fact concern for the welfare of the cat, hollow and misguided though it may be, is the film’s first genuine show of concern from one creature to another; when no adult is willing to show her similar affection, the consequences are heartbreaking.

While this is going on, the townspeople are busying themselves getting belligerently drunk and reveling inside the bar, dancing to a stultifyingly repetitive accordion tune and generally looking like complete idiots. It’s at once the strangest, funniest, and arguably the most damning sequence in the film, as the characters are reduced to their basest crudity. The sequence is practically definitive of the effect Tarr’s langorous pacing is capable of; it’s like a gallows version of that Simpsons scene where Sideshow Bob steps on a million rakes in a row, which goes from funny to stupid and back to funny again, only with a tinge of tragedy and even beauty at times.

When things finally wind down, and the characters have passed out on the bar’s various stools and benches, it’s then that we see (and hear about through narration) the bar’s resident spiders going to work. They weave their webs over the glasses strewn about, the dingy furniture, and even the human residents. They act as an embodiment of the vice and destructive evil these people do upon themselves, and the webs they build work as both a literal consequence of this place and as an analog to the tangled web of unsavory relationships these characters have woven for themselves. For a film in which so little that happens seems important, the rippling effects everybody’s (apparently minor) actions have can result in devastating changes down the road.

Later in the film, after most of the major plot points have gone down, Tarr returns to the notion of his principals as dumb animals. When Irimias, the mysterious con man, and his partners-in-crime, walk through the town square of a far less dilapidated-looking area (having taken off with the collective earnings of the entire village), they come across an unusual sight: a band of horses stampeding through. One of them comments that they’ve escaped from the slaughterhouse again, furthering the notion of the villagers as ignorant of their own impeding doom, but that very same principle could just as well apply to Irimias and his band. Though they may have conned the citizens out of their savings, they are just as beholden to higher-ups as those they bilk, and either far more accepting, or far less cognizant, of the fact. The humans in Sátántangó are short-sighted, trading long-term happiness for short term gain.

Tarr pads out this motif with intermittent shots of animals; a pig eating from a pile of garbage, a dog running side by side with Estike and her brother and being frightened off, etc. It’s the most thorough and obvious manifestation of Tarr’s distaste (“contempt,” if not too harsh, would be more accurate) for humanity. It’s a wonder, then, that we should find ourselves so invested in the concerns and conflicts of these characters. But after all, when has their baseness ever stopped us from being animal lovers? They’re uncomplicated people, a fact as understandable as it is lamentable. There’s a universality to their flaws that makes them all the more tragic.

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