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Why you need to read about this historic, real-world puzzle after watching Tenet

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Christopher Nolan's movies are all puzzle boxes, but none have been more confusing and confounding as his latest, Tenet. Out now in UK cinemas, the movie has left cinemagoers questioning everything they saw on the big screen.

We've already done a spoiler-filled deep-dive explaining the Tenet ending to help straighten out a few things. But now we want to look a little deeper at something that no-doubt helped shape Nolan's vision – the Sator Square.

SPOILER WARNING! Do not read on unless you have seen Tenet – we are going into major spoiler territory.

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Still here? Then you have witnessed the mind-boggling movie that is Nolan's Tenet. We won't go into the logistics of the plot, but we want to talk about a Latin word square known as the Sator Square. The earliest example of this square was found in the ruins of Pompeii. But what is it?

Well, the Sator Square is comprised of five words which, when arranged in the right order, can be read from right to left, left to right, top to bottom, and bottom to top. The five words are SATOR, AREPO, TENET, OPERA, and ROTAS. Here's an example of an early Sator Square.

The Sator Square

(Image credit: WikiCommons)

Recognise those words? Well, the most obvious, and central, is the title of the movie, TENET, a palindrome – a word that can be read the same forwards and backwards – that also has multiple meanings. Tenet becomes the name of The Protagonist's (John David Washington) organisation and is also "ten" backwards and forwards. The final mission of the movie, of course, was 10 minutes backwards and forwards. What!

Now, the other four words also all appear throughout Tenet. SATOR is the name of Kenneth Branagh's villain. The security company Sator hires is called ROTAS Security, another one of the words. ROTAS also ties in with the machines that invert people; the Latin words Rotas means wheel, and the machines are weird turnstiles that are sort-of wheels into becoming inverted/un-inverting yourself. 

OPERA is perhaps one of the more obvious words, as the opening scene takes place at an opera house and The Protagonist convinces Sator to trust him by asking whether he likes opera. The final word is AREPO, which is the name of the man who creates the fake Goya paintings that Elizabeth Dikicki's Kat accidentally claims are real, leading to her husband Sator having a hold over her.

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

So, why did Christopher Nolan do this? Why relate the movie to the Sator Square? Well, it all has to do with our idea of time and inversion. Where the words in the square can be read backwards and forwards, so, too, do things happen backwards and forwards in Tenet. 

This is just one of the many wonderful small details that will have you talking about Tenet for years to come. Read more spoiler-filled analysis here.

I'm the Entertainment Editor over here at GamesRadar+, bringing you all the latest movie and TV news, reviews, and features. I look after all the Total Film and SFX articles that end up on the website