Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Turin Horse Movie Review

In Bela Tarr’s latest, and reportedly final, film so much happens while seemingly nothing happens. It takes a lot of motivation to begin a black-and-white Hungarian art film with a 2 ½ hour running time, but surprisingly, once I started I could barely take my eyes away. The Turin Horse is an exquisitely beautiful and fascinating study of an old farmer’s and his daughter’s trudgingly repetitive and lugubrious existence in rural Italy in the late 19th century.

Tarr begins with a brief narration recounting the legend of the end of Nietzsche’s life, which claims he went insane after witnessing a man beating his stubborn horse on a street in Turin. Though we know what became of Nietzsche, no one knows what happened to the horse. The Turin Horse doesn’t necessarily purport to be about the horse or Nietzsche, but simply uses that story as inspiration and a jumping off point.

It’s hard to imagine a bleaker and more somber experience than this, a movie that is essentially an apocalyptic vision that prepares us not for the inevitable bang signaling the end of days, but a quiet whisper after the lights go out. This is a film whose intentions are oblique, whose narrative is stagnant, and whose characters are enigmas. Tarr follows the old man (János Derzsi) and his daughter (Erika Bók) through their daily routine, which is depicted as the heaviest of existences. They wake, dress, fetch water from the well, feed the horse, cook, eat boiled potatoes with their bare hands, clean up, and chop firewood. All these actions are performed in the film without explanation and with virtually no dialogue. Then it’s all repeated the second day.

The sensation created by Tarr’s use of only some 30 camera setups throughout the film is one of tension and anxiety, exacerbated by the constantly blowing gales outside and the horse’s continued refusal to budge or to eat. We don’t know what these people do, but it’s clear the horse is required for the sustenance of their lives in some way. The Turin Horse defies easy explanations, though it seems to insist on punishing us with the actual feeling of living this kind of repetitive life. The majority of people’s lives are probably not much different with our routines of going to work, cooking meals, sleeping, dressing, etc. Would leisure time change their existence by breaking up the tedium? As things grow progressively worse to the point that the sun blinks out in the middle of the day, the suggestion would seem to be that none of it matters much because the end is inevitable.

I don’t know quite what to make of Tarr’s final film in an analytical sense. All I know is that it was thrilling to watch (although surely the vast majority of viewers will struggle not to switch it off after 20 minutes), one of the most fascinating films I’ve seen in a long time, and one of the strongest reminders why a diet of only American films (even the indies) is like a food diet of fat and sugar. Sometimes you need to eat your vegetables, as unpleasant as the prospect may seem.

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