Doom looms, at a snail's pace
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Mar. 16, 2012
The apocalypse cannot be rushed in the black-and-white Hungarian film "The Turin Horse," an intentionally monotonous look at the lives of a farmer and his daughter. Strange events signal the end is nigh, but it approaches at the pace of a lethargic inchworm.
Art house film director Bela Tarr and his frequent collaborator, writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai, are hardly renowned for appealing to the masses. The critically acclaimed 1994 epic "Satantango," for example, clocked in at what many would consider a prohibitive 7 1/2 hours. Fans of that lengthy piece will no doubt find a lot to celebrate here, as did the judges at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival, where the movie took home the Jury Grand Prix.
Most audience members, however, may get left in the movie's persistent airborne dust.
As the film begins, blackness envelops the screen as a narrator relays the tale of Friedrich Nietzsche's mental unraveling. In Italy in 1889, he witnessed a man whipping a stubborn horse. As the story goes, Nietzsche's last semi-sane act was throwing his arms around the animal to protect it; after that he became the helpless ward of his mother and sister. That story is the only explicit reference to the famed philosopher.
The action begins with the first of many extended takes, showing an elderly man driving a horse-drawn cart. The film's inescapable, discordant and repetitive soundtrack of strings and organ accompanies the action of the mottled horse plodding into the wind while her sour-faced owner steers. While the horse certainly appears exhausted, if this is the same animal from the initial story, she has trotted a long way from Turin to Hungary.
As the farmer returns home, the audience becomes privy to the nearly dialogue-free daily routine with his daughter. Over the course of six days, there are multiple meals of scalding boiled potatoes, numerous trips to the well, countless buttons fastened and undone. While each burdensome task is filmed in a different, artful way - in one instance, the viewer sees just the man eating his dinnertime potato, while in the next only the woman is shown - the overall effect is exhausting.
This, of course, is the point.
As the film unfolds, the characters attempt to follow their typical course, even in the face of baffling occurrences. The water in the well dwindles, the horse refuses to eat and rowdy vagabonds pay the pair a visit. Mostly though, the film is made up of beautifully shot humdrum moments.
There is something to be said for the long takes, especially with the cinematic trend of dizzying quick cutting. And with all this talk of shortened attention spans thanks to constant stimuli, "The Turin Horse" could serve as the ultimate test of singular concentration.
But it is hard to imagine anyone besides the hyper-focused or especially devoted trudging through this slow-release mass destruction. The story is an endurance test, both for the characters on-screen and the ones in the audience.
Contains strong language. In Hungarian with English subtitles.