The Turin Horse (Day 54)

The Turin HorseMy Opinion: 6.5 || Relentlessly bleak. Devoid of characterization and plot. And numbingly slow. But — the best black-and-white cinematography I’ve ever seen. It’s a revelation. The film is like a succession of still lifes. (With more still than life.) I’m not convinced that pushing the boundaries of minimalism equates to pushing the boundaries of art, but it’s a distinct, uncompromising, and memorable experience.

TITLE: The Turin Horse (A torinói ló)
DIRECTOR: Béla Tarr
LANGUAGE: Hungarian | COUNTRY: Hungary
YEAR: 2011
PROFILE: Drama | 146 minutes | IMDb (7.5)

SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of Netflix): Hungarian director Béla Tarr helms this black-and-white drama about an aging farmer, his daughter and his horse, which picks up just after famed German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche shields the animal from the farmer’s whip.

Strengths: I dreamt about it, which is unusual for me. That suggests that Tarr does succeed in delivering an immersive experience. And the fact that this will be my longest commentary so far certainly reflects the challenging (in a good way) nature of the film. Whatever the movie’s failings, it’s impossible to come away unaffected by the imagery and sense of privation. I don’t mean only the material privation, which is apparent in every moment of the film, but the soulless vacancy of the characters and their environment.

I wish I had the vocabulary to describe how starkly beautiful the photography is. The depth, the clarity, the detail — if every black-and-white film could look like this, I’d be content never to look at color images again. (I had the good fortune to watch a Blu-Ray version and highly recommend that anyone interested in the movie do the same — or see it in a theater.)

The Turin Horse

Primary Weaknesses: The Turin Horse has many weaknesses but few failures. It’s not as if Tarr tries to deliver a plot and characterization but fails: he’s clearly determined to obliterate both. Does that reflect artistic courage and strength of vision — or constrained imagination and curiosity? You have to wonder: At what point does minimalism this extreme become more of a filmmaking experiment than a full-hearted attempt at exploration? Tarr doesn’t seem intent on conveying desolation; he seems intent on committing it.

Other Weaknesses: There are several voice overs. They don’t work. After scene upon scene of unceasing gloom, it’s verges on comedy to lay on a gloomy voiceover describing how gloomy it all is. Gloom. Got it.

Our miserable protagonists receive two visits. The second one involves a band of aggressive gypsies, and it’s the closest the movie comes to action. It’s a good scene. The first visit, though, is nothing but a set-up to have the guest deliver a long speech about the decay of the world, the victory of the devil, and so on. It’s contrived and indulgently verbose. And, given the apocalyptic dreariness that already fills every scene, it amounts to gilding the lily. Or whatever the exact opposite is of gilding a lily.

Every outdoor scene involves swirling gusts of dust and desiccated leaves. Which is welcome, in a way, because at least it provides some movement. But there are moments when the howling end-times atmospherics inadvertently edge toward humor. (It would be all too easy to make a parody of the interminable wind and zombie-like staring.)

The Turin Horse

There’s a point when the father and daughter decide to abandon the place because it’s become too inhospitable even for them. They pack up their possessions (in painstaking real-time) and then labor over the hill. And then we stare and stare at the desolate hill — and then we watch them circle back. And unpack everything. No explanations. Given the film’s utter lack of symbolism anywhere else, it’s hard to take this as a surrealist statement about the impossibility of escape. It’s just an inexplicable thing that happens.

It’s interesting that despite its relentless gloom, the movie isn’t really “sad.” That’s largely due to the fact that Tarr makes his characters so impenetrable and dull — without engagement, it’s difficult to feel anything, including (especially) sadness. However, Tarr deserves some credit for eschewing graphic cruelty toward humans or horses; the film is austere but never assaultive.

Characters/Performances: The character notes for this film could fit on a the back of a matchbook. We’re meant to see them as miserable automatons who have been sapped of warmth and interest by years of privation and drudgery. The idea (I think) is that the austerity of their circumstances has rendered them emotionally, intellectually, and spirituality denuded. All that remains is to trudge from one dreary hardship to another.

That’s the point. And it’s not enough of one. The film’s images are starkly memorable, but the characters themselves are never more than elements in the scene. They aren’t people, they’re avatars of misery. This is Tarr’s biggest mistake. He hasn’t peopled the film with actual people — the characters are only ever his cynical suffer-dolls.

The Turin Horse

Possibly Inevitable Tarkovsky Comparison: There are strong similarities here to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. That film has a similar visual quality, but Tarr is obviously benefitting from technical resources that didn’t exist in the mid-60s Soviet Union. But Tarr doesn’t experiment with perspective or spatial sense in the way that Tarkovsky does — his camera is just as lifless as his characters. Given a choice between the exsanguinated slowness of Tarr and the meditative slowness of Tarkovsky, I’ll take the latter.

Best Moment: The film’s best scene shows the daughter closing the barn door on the dying horse (the one character we care about) in a way that conveys finality. The lingering camera is warranted here and affecting.

File Under: bleak, dreary, gloomy, stark, slow, beautiful imagery

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