The Turin Horse (2011)

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Hungarian director Bela Tarr – in what he says will be his last film – delivers another highly original tale. Exquisitely shot, stately, and hopelessly oppressive.

Whether the famous story the film uses as its starting point is true or not is both debatable and – for the film’s purposes – irrelevant, but it’s said that one morning in 1899 German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche walked out into the streets of Turin and saw a cabman whipping his horse. Horrified, Nietzsche approached and threw his arms around the horse to protect it, and then promptly collapsed in the street. It was supposedly the first sign of the madness that – months later – killed him

While that tale went down in history, The Turin Horse imagines the completely forgotten other side of the legend: the cab man and the horse’s fate. Beginning on “The First Day” (on the journey home after that incident), the film opens with perhaps its most bravura moment.

Until now I have – quite understandably, I think! – never singled out an animal as the standout performer in a film, but as bizarre as it sounds the horse’s performance is incredible. The opening scene/shot is a typically lengthy Tarr classic as the eponymous horse pulls his master’s cab home. The truly outstanding music – the only piece of music in the film, and one that plays repeatedly to majestic effect – coupled with the images is simply hypnotic. The horse is lovingly photographed as it struggles on. It’s a tragic creature – obvious from the moment the film starts. Its muscles are all visible as it strives against apocalyptically harsh weather conditions. The cab man is a similarly skeletal, weather-beaten figure.

We’re shown the daily life of the cab man and his daughter over the course of six days. Tarr doesn’t shy away from portraying the spirit-crushingly repetitive nature of their existence with several utterly mundane scenes enacted four or five times – at length – throughout the film. A visitor appears with a Nietzschian speech about the upcoming apocalypse that man himself has wrought. The horse refuses to move, eat, or indeed live. It’s their only hope of a livelihood, and it’s retreating from existence. Other ominous events occur, until the incredible, enigmatic final moments.

It’s a film that’s wide open to interpretation. I enjoyed the theme of Nature’s cruel superiority over man: the cab man and the horse are given strong parallels : we see them both being dressed, undressed and fed; they’re also both in a similar physical condition. Yet crucially the horse is presented as dignified, and the one with all the power in the relationship. And there are the dinner scenes where the only sounds are the relentless howling winds outside and the man blowing on his potato to cool it. As the film progresses Nature starts dealing increasingly crueller blows until that amazing final scene.

I understand completely the decision to repeat actions: it’s central to the film’s entire message. However Tarr gets his point across at the expense of the audience, and unfortunately it’s more of an ordeal than it should be. It’s too far removed from the conventional at times and as a result it gets tedious when you’re able to predict exactly what will happen down to the smallest detail for the next ten minutes. There is no character development of any kind, and aside from the visitor’s speech the dialogue is purely functional and conspiculously sparse.

But overall the pros far outweigh the cons, and The Turin Horse is a unique cinema experience. And it’s certainly immensely powerful on the big screen.

Directors: Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky
Stars:János Derzsi, Erika Bók, Mihály Kormos
Runtime: 146 min
Country: Hungary, France, Germany, Switzerland, USA

Film Rating: ★★★★½

2 Comments
  1. Kevin Matthews says

    You may be insanely jealous to hear that my mate Chris, who I bumped into at this morning’s movies (he works during the EIFF and tries to catch lots too), met Bela Tarr yesterday after seeing American Torso, a movie he programmed. Chris told me that he offered some praise, Bela Tarr thanked him and seemed a bit shy and then Chris stood a few feet away, smoking his cigarette in an uncomfortable silence that he had caused. Hahaha, rubbing shoulders with the celebs eh :-p

  2. Chris Knipp says

    [From another Chris you’re not insanely jealous of…]

    I would like to see this.

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