DIR: Béla Tarr | Cinema of Our Time | France , Germany , Hungary , Switzerland , USA | 2011 | 146 mins
The Turin Horse begins with plain text across the screen, telling the story of Friedrich Nietzsche’s mental breakdown in Turin in the late 19th century after he sees a horse being whipped.
The film then opens with a workhorse being driven by a farmer at a steady pace across a fog-filled, desolate countryside. (Is this the same horse that was witnessed by Nietzsche? The film doesn’t say.) A mournful-sounding dirge plays throughout this scene and repeats itself through key parts of the film after the farmer arrives home to his daughter. During the times when this musical theme doesn’t play, the sound of the howling wind stubbornly bears down on every scene, almost like another character, persistently reminding both the characters and the audience that it may very well sweep them away from the earth.
For five days the film follows the farmer and his daughter around on their daily tasks. The daughter helps the farmer dress and undress; she boils potatoes; they eat potatoes; they stare out the window; they worry when the horse doesn’t want to eat. With a few exceptions, these actions are repeated even while they make attempts to leave the farm.
Two scenes are welcome breaks and actually provide the majority of the film’s dialogue and explicates the film’s themes—a neighbour borrows palinka and rants about the degeneration of society, and a band of gypsies pays an unwelcome visit. But for the most part, the long takes and lack of dialogue forces you to sit there, desperate for some sort of stimulus, compelling you to then notice every detail of the farmer’s bearing, his unexpressed affection for his daughter as she helps him remove his jacket and shoes, the play of light and shadows, and the slow rhythms of life in a 19th century Hungarian farmstead.
It would be an understatement to say that watching this film requires a certain amount of patience. Around day four, as I watched the farmer and his daughter eating their potatoes for the fourth time, I found myself in a sort of stupor as I wondered when the film would end. But a sort of stark and powerful beauty can be found in the beautifully filmed black and white cinematography, the measured pacing, the mournful musical theme, and the sound of the howling wind. Thus, when nature itself seems to fail the farmer and his daughter, it doesn’t come as a surprise or an apocalyptic event, but as a slow, sad, inevitable realization. In the words of T.S. Eliot: This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.
Patricia Lim is managing editor for Ricepaper Magazine and a part-time librarian. She likes to meet weirdly interesting people and attend artsy events to stretch her mind. You can see what she writes on Twitter @ricepapermag.