Monday, November 14, 2011

The Turin Horse: Grade A


The Turin Horse (2011)
János Derzsi, Erika Bók; Directors Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky, (Hungarian; subtitled).

I only discovered Bela Tarr in 2006 when I saw his 1988 movie, Damnation (reviewed in this blog 11/27/06). Turin Horse was his last film. Like Damnation, this one is long (2.5 hrs), extremely slow, shot in beautiful black-and-white, and ultimately about the desperation of life under totalitarian (communist) rule in Hungary. It is utterly mesmerizing, depressing, and beautiful, but only recommended for viewers who are committed to film as an art form.

A poor, elderly, and disabled country farmer in Italy, about 1900, makes a meager living carting goods, his horse an old, gray, sickly mare. He lives with his daughter in a fieldstone house in a cold, windy, treeless land where a howling gale rages for most of the movie. It’s always winter, cold, and bleak in a Bela Tarr movie, because that’s how life was under communism. The storm is the harsh and relentless politics blowing through the land, the dust making the simplest movement a challenge. The man and his daughter eat boiled potatoes, fetch water from the well, stoke the wood stove, gaze numbly out the dirty window, and sleep. She spends a lot of time dressing and undressing her father, who has a bad arm. They both spend a lot of time harnessing up and unharnessing the horse. This goes on and on, repeatedly.

Scenes are re-enacted in excruciating detail, every day. After about three cycles, I inwardly screamed, “Please, God, no! Not another boiled potato!” But yes, it was another boiled potato, and we again watched it being prepared, served, and eaten, in almost real-time. The same for all the other daily chores. Over and over with tiny, tiny variations, sometimes only in the camera movements or angles.

But this is exactly the point. The audience literally feels, viscerally, the hopelessness, the meaninglessness, the mind-numbing repetitiveness of that life. We understand experientially, in a way no narrative description could ever convey. That’s what makes the film an unforgettable artistic triumph. Yes, it takes a difficult 2.5 hours of nothingness to “get it,” but that’s a lot less than a lifetime.

A few things do happen, though. The horse gets too sick to work, and finally, the well goes dry. So they are doomed. They gaze numbly out the window into the winter storm. The final scene, of the two characters sitting at the table (over potatoes not boiled – no water), is pure visual poetry. They look somehow Christlike at that point.

The blurb for the film says that this old horse was the exact one that Nietzsche famously encountered in Turin in 1899. But that is a red herring that should be ignored. If the ads told you what the movie was really about (existential nothingness), you wouldn’t go.

The cinematography is extremely interesting and beautiful, the music hypnotic – deep bass and cello, repetitive, droning, beautiful, and soporific, in keeping with the tone. The visual images burn into your brain as you stare into the face of a human condition reduced to a mechanical numbness that strangely still retains its dignity. The portrayal is not completely realistic (e.g., who chops the firewood and cuts the hay for the horse; who maintains that stone house, etc.? Surely not the woman alone, and surely not the one-armed man). So there is a theatrical element to the storytelling, but the realism of the life somehow comes through that artifice brighter than actuality.

1 comment:

  1. As it looks Pretty good movie and I am excited to watch Turin Horse online