“This way, it’s a nice family story. But it finishes like any other story. Because stories end badly. Stories are all stories of disintegration. […] Irrevocable disintegration.” — Karrer, Damnation (Bela Tarr, 1988)
Beginning with his fifth feature in 1988, Bela Tarr has built one of the most distinct and aesthetically unwavering oeuvres in cinema, totaling about a thousand minutes, composed of roughly 340 shots, and spanning five films made over the course of the last twenty-three years.
If Tarr stands by his word that The Turin Horse is his final work, then he and his loyal crew have concluded their run with a picture that distills Tarr’s aesthetic and subject almost to their limits. (For the uninitiated, that would be: gorgeous, vivid and patient black and white cinematography bearing solemn witness to the fates of losers stuck in the fraying corners of provincial Europe. Ah, that.)
The Turin Horse begins with a voiceover narrator recounting, over a black screen, the legend of Nietzsche’s traumatic witnessing of the flogging of a horse by its cabman in the streets of Turin. The anecdote soon concludes and the film’s images begin with a man (János Derzsi), handicapped by a dead left arm and a glass right eye, driving his mare through the ghostly wind and fog of the countryside. (This and several other scenes are scored with foreboding and entrancing theme music from Tarr’s regular composer, Mihaly Vig.) They arrive at a modest estate – a one room house with a barn and a well, on barren, hilly land – where the man and his allegiant daughter (Erika Bok) endure a five-day windstorm of mythical ferocity that threatens to blow out the weak flames of their humble lives.
The small family attempts to leave its property, but the sad-eyed mare will not budge, and leaving on foot proves too difficult in such weather. They retreat back indoors. Their only provisions are water from their well, fruit brandy, and potatoes, which the daughter boils each day and which they eat ritualistically, never waiting to let the tubers cool, but pawing at them, breaking off chunks and blowing away the heat in order to swallow the food as soon as possible. On the second day they receive a visitor – a neighbor who has run out of his own brandy and seeks replenishment. He sits down and launches into a fervid exegesis of the windstorm, purporting its historical and philosophical import. More words are spoken in these few minutes than in all the rest of the film’s dialogue combined.
In the first three films of Tarr’s mature period, moments of joy arise mercifully and casually – usually in a tavern, with the aid of dancing, music and alcohol. But in 2007′s The Man From London, the relief is extremely short (though once again in a bar), and in this new film Tarr provides no counterpoint at all to the film’s theme of, as he puts it, “the heaviness of human existence.” While the gypsies who storm the estate and steal the family’s water have fun with it, they are like looters in a post-apocalypse; their merry pillaging only further imperils the family with whom our identification and sympathy remain.
Tarr captures all this with his signature long takes, so smoothly executed that they would be self-effacing if not for how different the pace of action is from that of conventional films. The camera lingers on the setting and characters with a kind of detached curiosity, sometimes for minutes; the characterof the setting is brought into relief with depth and tangibility; the camera fluidly follows action and then finds stable compositions within each shot. InThe Turin Horse, all the verbal elements (the tale of Nietzsche, the neighbor’s monologue and the occasional voiceover narration) are ultimately superfluous, given how completely Tarr commands the moving image to convey a yet darker shade of the feelings he’s filmed for a quarter century.