Philadelphia Film Fest 2011: ‘The Turin Horse’

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The Turin Horse

Directed by Béla Tarr

Written by Béla Tarr

Hungary, 2011

The Turin Horse is Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s first film since 2007.  Working with frequent co-writer László Krasznahorkai, but without a novel as their source material for the first time in over a decade, Tarr uses the tale of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s horse as prologue for a despondent film in his signature long takes.

As the story goes and as Tarr’s own voiceover tells us in the beginning of the film, Nietzsche saw a horse being beaten.  He ran to protect it, throwing his arms around the animal.  For two days following he was mute and prostrate, and then suffered from dementia for the next ten years until his death.  The horse at the center of Tarr’s film is owned by a husband and daughter who solely occupy the large majority of the screen-time.  Living in an isolated shack on a wind-swept plain, the film follows their everyday routine as their meager existence gradually lessens until it is all but snuffed out.

The entire film is composed of perhaps 30 shots, and the black and white cinematography, from the gorgeous opening of horse-and-rider, plunges The Turin Horse into a stark fairy-tale atmosphere that seeks to transcend the boundaries of pure narrative.  While the focus is certainly on the everyday – Tarr shows four different angles of the two eating potatoes, a routine that has special significance in the end – it would be a mistake to call this a (neo-)neo-realist work.  The Turin Horse is far less a social commentary, indeed it is nearly devoid of social interaction and dialogue, than it is existential rumination.

The inciting incident, which rhymes with the Nietzsche tale, where the horse refuses to budge, is not a cinematically symbolic excuse to affect the remainder of the plot, but rather analogy for a lack of meaning.  If The Turin Horse isn’t a purely existential story, than it is at least one that attempts to define one’s existence not by purpose but by things and small events.  A lone monologue mid-film tries to frame life and its meaninglessness as a human, even biblical construction, but the response given by the father to the soliloquizing traveler is one of disinterest, read: life is what it is.

As in any Tarr film, the progression here is slow and slight.  The long takes, impossible to ignore yet almost equally impossible to single out, and the score by Mihály Vig, exuding both stasis and movement, are hypnotic and meditative.  Tarr’s strategy of showing the same, repetitive action from multiple perspectives ultimately pays off when husband and daughter attempt to leave the house.  In a moment that is strikingly different from much of the rest of the film they plod away only to be back a short while later.  What is just over that hill that disallows their journey?  We’ll never know, but it might just as easily be the same dry emptiness that’s been on-screen thus far.

The deterioration and despondence prevalent in the film become even more so when the protagonists gradually lose what little they have.  The ending, desolate and daunting, serves as treatise to a certain type of meaninglessness: what is life worth if a horse can be beaten?  Why should husband and daughter survive when there’s nothing over that hill?

Neal Dhand

Visit the website for the Philadelphia Film Festival 

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