Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s 1994 film sounds like the setup for a novel John Steinbeck would write. A farming community (a former collectivist farm, as it’s based on a 1985 novel written in the Soviet Union) has received a government subsidy.
From hardened criminals to abusive older children, we see the various ways that the cunning take the shares of the cash from the unsuspecting. The movie stretches seven and a half hours with a much smaller cast than a film like that would usually involve (unless you count the cows in it as cast members) but since it’s conveniently divided into twelve parts watching it is more akin to watching a miniseries.
The time commitment isn’t the most daunting sounding aspect of Sátántangó to the uninitiated. This movie shows its various subplots mostly in very long takes that often amount to traveling from place to place on foot, or even walking around buildings.
Additionally, certain scenes are replayed from different points of view. Sound boring? For many it will be.
But it also has the effect of removing any sense of quaintness to the rundown rural setting. Even though the images are filmed in crisp black and white, they feature muddy, sloshing paths. The effect is that being inside the village can seem so oppressive and uncomfortable for the viewer that they become numb to the wickedness of the many thieves.
The most popular interpretation of David Lynch’s 1978 debut film is that it’s about a printing factory worker in a bleak town named Henry Spencer who accidentally impregnates his girlfriend Mary, and they have an inhumanly deformed baby.
The reason that’s only the most popular interpretation is because Lynch has explicitly said in interviews that in the following decades no one came close to accurately interpreting his grim debut (he has said the true intended meaning has something to do with the Holy Bible, but that’s as revealing as he’s gotten.)
So what keeps compelling people to try? Because Lynch’s movie not only has the loose structure of a comprehensible if grim story, it also has teases for the audience that seem to play off how abstract certain surreal scenes are.
For example, during a scene where Henry meets his girlfriend’s mother, there’s a loud, off-putting squeaking noise through much of the scene, leaving the viewer anxious about what that noise is and what it could mean… then revealing it’s a benign litter of puppies.
Later, when Mary leaves Henry, there’s an extended scene where she’s messing with the end of the bed while Henry’s lying on it. It’s framed from Henry’s POV so we can’t see what she’s doing, and we’ve seen enough surreal imagery with ominous sounds that it could be anything.