A scene from “The Turin Horse”
/ Courtesy of Jeonju International Film Festival
By Kwaak Je-yup
One would be hard-pressed to watch two people perform daily chores in a two and a half hour black and white movie.
But “The Turin Horse,” just released to selected theaters here, turns the seemingly mundane into a wild ride.
For fans of the legendary Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, it is a must see: he has insisted this will be his last film. And by his standards, the running time seems brief.
Whether or not you are familiar with the 56-year-old’s works does not matter. Even first-timers will appreciate the shocking images of life’s brutality through vivid cinematography. It won Tarr and co-director Agnes Hranitzky the Silver Bear at the 61st Berlin Film Festival last year.
The film takes off from an 1889 incident involving Friedrich Nietzsche, recounting how the philosopher on the streets of Turin, Italy, saw a driver of a hansom cab mercilessly whipping a horse that would not budge. Nietzsche pleaded with the man to stop and tried to protect the animal by holding on to its neck. Following this event, he became silent and demented, and died 10 years later. “We do not know what happened to the horse,” says the voiceover.
After this scene, we are faced with the harsh realities of rural life, divided into six days. The father (Janos Derzsi, “Autumn Almanac”), who simultaneously looks like a Greek god and an unwashed beast, keeps whipping his horse to get the carriage started to no avail. The daughter (Erika Bok, “Satantango”) has an even more miserable appearance, cooking potato-only meals, fetching water from the nearby well, doing laundry and dressing her father.
For an arthouse film, there is little subtlety. The message is in your face. The on-screen repetition of the daily routine gives us several angles from which we can look at this one-hut one-well microcosm. With a harrowing dust storm outside and the grotesque metronomic music in the background, we splurge in the many unpleasant images of life. They work without ever questioning why, and it is unclear what the father does. How are they making a living?
Tarr throws a notable moment of comedy in the midst of the quotidian monotony and unbearable heaviness, when a neighbor (Mihaly Kormos) comes, asks for a drink and speaks at length about the self-imposed degradation of humanity. The goodness in men has disappeared; there is an impending doom. After this out of the blue but admittedly beautiful and poetic monologue ― almost like Charlie Chaplin’s iconic Hitler speech in “The Great Dictator” ― the father, off-screen, retorts: “Come off it, it’s rubbish.” The neighbor exits.
Heaviness ensues: the horse later stops eating or drinking; it refuses to go on. After a gang of gypsies come and are chased away, the well inexplicably dries up. Life slowly drains away.
It is by no means easy to watch this seemingly interminable indulgence in human misery. The music, by the masterful Mihaly Vig, is especially excessive and overbearing. But it is a beautiful film, nonetheless, that creates and fully explores an absurd world of daily lives and most importantly makes us question our own.
Original title “A Torinoi lo.” In theaters Feb. 23. Runs 146 minutes. Rated 15 and over. Distributed by Jeonju International Film Festival.