EIFF 2011 Review: Turin Horse

Rating (out of 5)
Show info
Béla Tarr (writer-director), Ágnes Hranitzky (director), László Krasznahorkai (screenplay)
János Derzsi, Erika Bók, Mihály Kormos
Running time

A new film by the Hungarian master of cinema, Bela Tarr, is always to be welcomed, particularly when it represents his final artistic statement, as “Turin Horse” is seemingly set to be.

Tarr’s last film at EIFF was also his most recent, 2007’s “The Man From London”. That film found Tarr’s trademark shooting style of elongated takes and stark black and white photography jarr uncomfortably with the narrative of a George Simenon detective tale, not helped by the poor dubbing of star Tilda Swinton, with the final result being something of a Europudding.

“Turin Horse” finds Tarr returning to the form of his masterpiece, “Satantango”, building a simple fable out of the very dirt and soil of the earth. Beginning as it ends, in utter darkness, we hear a narration of how Friedrick Nietzsche once stopped a horse being whipped by his driver in Turin in 1889 before breaking down in tears and spending the final ten years of his life in total silence. “We do not know what happened to the horse”.

The audience is then hurled into the infernal image of a near-exhausted horse at the point of collapse being whipped by its owner through a fog-shrouded landscape. Strings howl and grind on the soundtrack, almost in delirium, making for one of the most arresting opening scenes of a film I can remember seeing.

What follows in “Turin Horse” is a study of the next five days in the life of the horse owner and his daughter as they live a seemingly meaningless existence in a bare shack in the middle of a wasted wilderness pounded relentlessly by screeching gales. They exist on a diet of potatoes and palinka, barely communicating with each other beyond gesture and instruction. Their horse refuses to work and they find themselves beset by troubles and the occasional deranged visitation from the outside world.

Everything about “Turin Horse” seems stripped down to its essential core. Dialogue is kept sparse and minimal, with the occasional snatch of elliptical conversation about the likes of woodworms and immortal controlling forces. Father and daughter are trapped in their own deadening routines in a barren land which is turning upon them.

It is as though Tarr has decided to frame the absurd pointlessness of existence before finally signalling an end to it all. A life of futile drudgery with the occasional black joke played at one’s own expense. Yet, this is no nihilistic vision, more statement of fact using cinematic poetry.

“Turin Horse” could, despite the 146 minute running time, be regarded as a coda to Tarr’s career. Yet that does it a disservice. It is more the final will and testament by a true artist who has simply run out of anything to say, because there is nothing more he can say. A last work of real genius.

Screening at Filmhouse on Saturday 18 June at 19.10 and Sunday 19 June at16.45 as part of EIFF 2011.