The Turin Horse
Béla Tarr’s fascination with duration endures
The philosopher Nietzsche’s final act before going mad was to intervene when he saw a cabman beating a horse. This event took place in Turin. Hence the title of Béla Tarr’s ninth feature film, “The Turin Horse.”
The film begins with a narrator briefly recounting that story, then cuts to a shot of a bedraggled mare pulling a cart down a windswept country road. Like many of the shots in “The Turin Horse,” it’s a very long take that uses fluidly moving (but not at all showy) camerawork. It’s a marvel.
The horse isn’t the one in the Nietzsche story. If that animal’s experience pertains to anyone in the movie, it’s the horse’s owner (János Derzsi) and his adult daughter (Erika Bók). They’re the ones being beaten, or beaten down, and it’s the nature of existence doing the beating. Nor does anyone intervene on their behalf, let alone a famous philosopher — or God. The story pointedly takes place over six days; and as Tarr, the film’s director and co-writer has noted, God showed some nerve when he took the day off after creating the world in a similar period of time.
So “The Turin Horse” is a parable, which means it’s both very simple and very weighty. It’s not about event and emotion, but duration and endurance. Duration may be Tarr’s great theme. “Sátántangó” (1994), one of his two masterpieces, lasts more than seven hours. The other, “Werckmeister Harmonies” (2000), lasts a “mere” two hours and 25 minutes.
“The Turin Horse” outdoes the “Harmonies” running time by one minute, but it feels a lot longer. The farmhouse where the man and his daughter live is a place not so much outside of time as beneath it: lost to its gravitational pull and the constricting pressure of its slow passage. The characters live at some indeterminate date. There’s no electricity or running water, but the various implements in the sparsely furnished farmhouse could be contemporary — or predate Nietzsche.
The film doesn’t just ignore calendrical time; it offers a (very) deadpan mockery of any such concept. The father mentions in passing (the film has very little dialogue) that he’s lived there 58 years. That’s how time matters in “The Turin Horse,” as accumulation and repetition, not as change or variation.
Very little happens. Certain actions recur. The daughter helps the father dress and undress (he has a paralyzed right arm). She draws water from a well and carries it to the house. She boils the potatoes that are the only food we see them eat: one for each at every meal. They try to deal with the recalcitrant mare. These daily activities come to seem almost like religious rites: celebrated on an abandoned altar, directed to an absent God. You will recall that Nietzsche proclaimed God’s death.
About an hour into the movie, a neighbor (Mihály Kormos) shows up, seeking to buy a bottle of brandy. His arrival comes as a nearly physical shock, so hypnotic have been the film’s rhythms and the characters’ routine. Tarr doesn’t waste his presence. The neighbor gets to deliver in close-up an eight-minute rant about the moral bankruptcy of existence (“Acquire, debase, debase, acquire!”). Some time later, a Gypsy family in a wagon briefly appears outside the house, looking for water. Then things return to an increasingly desperate-feeling normal. And all the while the wind blows, its howls harmonizing with Mihály Vig’s broodingly effective score, with its unresolved chords on organ and strings.
“The Turin Horse” is in a very gray black and white. It looks the same way it feels: bleak, pure, forbidding, transfixing. Watching it, frankly, can be a bit of an ordeal. There’s hardly anything in “The Turin Horse” you would describe as entertaining, but there is a very great deal that’s beautiful and absorbing. At one point, the father tells his daughter that he’s stopped hearing the worms eating through the wood. The viewer knows the feeling. “The Turin Horse” has that kind of stillness, that degree of concentration.
Tarr, who turns 57 next month, has announced that “The Turin Horse” will be his last film. Between that news and the death in January of Theo Angelopoulos, 2012 is proving to be one of the grimmer years in recent film history — a grimness far worse even than that endured by the characters in “The Turin Horse.”
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.