NZIFF ’11: The Turin Horse

nziff ’11: A torinói ló (The Turin Horse)
dir. Béla Tarr | Hungary/France/Switzerland/Germany | 2011 | 146 mins.

The Turin Horse, purportedly the final film by Hungarian maestro Béla Tarr, seems like it existed before cinema itself and has only now been discovered. Its long, slow takes are mesmeric: they put us deep inside the world of the film, to the point where the edges of the frame dissolve and we don’t just experience what happens to the characters, but we begin to feel as isolated, moribund and morose as they feel. Tarr’s films will affect you physically, if you let them*—as Anahí Arana confesses on her blog, Shoot the Critic, “My insides begin to empty out when I watch Tarr. I begin to let go of what makes me feel safe, because he shows me that it’s merely an illusion.”

In 1888, Frederich Neitzsche witnessed a stubborn horse being beaten on the side of the road, and leapt in to save it from further abuse. The philosopher was significantly affected by this: he subsequently had a mental breakdown and died little more than a decade later. Tarr’s film—supposed to be his final work—fictionalises a story of the horse and its owners in the years after this event. Co-directed by Tarr’s editor Ágnes Hranitzky, and co-written by his regular collaborator, the novelist László Krasznahorkai (he wrote Kárhozat (Damnation), A Londoni férfi, and the books upon which Sátántangó and Werckmeister harmóniák are based), the film follows the elderly man and his middle-aged daughter who carve out for themselves a meagre existence in an isolated old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. They subsist on a diet of boiled potatoes (the father sometimes adds what looks like it might be a sort of sea-salt), and they seems to earn a scant living by taking trips to nearby villages with their horse and cart.

Over six days, metered out by title cards, we see them dress in layers of increasingly ragged clothes; we see the daughter collect water from their well; we see them take the horse out (or attempt to: he’s still quite stubborn, and possibly suicidal); we see them go to sleep each night; and we see them, from a different angle each time, eat their (only?) daily meal of a boiled potato. We become so accustomed, in fact, to the rhythms of their daily life, to the monotonous routine, and to their instinctive, non-verbal communication, that a visit by a neighbour—who’s come to talk politics, and fill up a bottle with pálinka—comes as a total shock. Like something out of a horror movie, his appearance is a jolt to the senses: an intrusive flurry of words and images. This is echoed again later by another group of equally unwelcome visitors: a band of gypsies who appear on the horizon and who come, it would seem, to steal water from the well. Their merriment is totally at odds with the nihilism that pervades the rest of the film, not to mention the howling apocalypse portended by the combination of the score and that incessant, droning wind.

The astonishing camerawork and breathtaking black-and-white cinematography is among the best in all cinema, and the film’s sound design—a cold windstorm howls around the house, day and night, as Mihály Vig’s churning, minimalist score recurs, almost eternally—is equally spectacular. It will doubtless be an extremely difficult (or outright impossible) watch for many, but for those who have the perseverance to stay with it, The Turin Horse will stand as one of their most rewarding cinema-going experiences. This is filmic soul food: pure cinema at its most bare and resonant.

The Turin Horse screens on Tuesday July 26 in Auckland, and on Thursday August 11 in Wellington. This thorough piece by the critic Robert Koehler is essential reading.

Side-note: New Zealand audiences are very, very lucky that the festival provides them the opportunity to see a film of this magnitude on a big screen. Depressingly, as with Apichatpong Weerasthakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives in last year’s nzff, a film like The Turin Horse will never play on a cinema screen in this country again unless it’s part of a festival retrospective, or organised by a Film Society—some of the latter of which have recently been providing the first cinema screenings in this country of the major works of Pedro Costa.

*…and if there isn’t someone in the seat next to you distractingly eating an ice-cream and spilling popcorn everywhere.

The film, which runs nearly two-and-a-half hours, is composed of only thirty shots; in the 2004 documentary The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing, Walter Murch estimates that the standard Hollywood movie contains in excess of five thousand cuts.

The New Zealand International Film Festivals began on July 14 in Auckland; they start in Wellington on July 29, then travel to Dunedin, Christchurch, Palmerston North, and Hamilton throughout August, and Nelson, Tauranga, New Plymouth, Hawke’s Bay, Greymouth, Masterton, and, finally, Kerikeri in November.

Full information on all films in the programme is at the festival’s website.

For more reviews, browse the “New Zealand International Film Festivals 2011
tag on this site, and check the Twitter hashtag #nzff.