“THE TURIN HORSE” (2011) Reviewed ★★★★★

Of all contemporary international directors, few filmmakers can match Béla Tarr for sheer commitment and passionate, almost stubborn dedication to a singular artistic vision. There is no such thing as indifference for those who have witnessed – or rather experienced – its distinctiveness. And despite a Golden Silver Bear received at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival, added to mixed but lively reactions from enthusiastic festival crowds from all over the world, the Hungarian maverick still insists that his strikingly overbearing, masterfully executed The Turin Horse will remain, after a career spanning over three decades, his last opus. Call it dogmatic pretension or simply unyielding integrity faithful to the man’s uncompromising creative nature, one thing is certain: whether his decision is final or not, The Turin Horse stands out as the most haunting, hypnotic and accomplished film the master has ever made. This is indeed not an easy compliment to make when referring to one of the fragments of such a noteworthy filmography that includes Damnation, Satan’s Tango and Werckmeister Harmonies.

Its setting and production design couldn’t be more minimalist; except a lengthy opening tracking shot that already establishes, along with Mihaly Vig’s jarring musical score, the austere tone for the rest of the film, Tarr does not allow its two central characters, an old man and his daughter (played by Janos Derzsi and Erika Bok), to wander around farther than the isolated country house in which they live and its immediate surroundings. We recognize these two forlorn faces from previous works by the filmmaker. They do not speak by words or intricate emotions but by suggestion and evocation. They embody a cinematic universe in which prolonged silence, the monotonous sound of the rain or the fierce wind blowing outside, all prominent, serve to convey a certain state of mind. One of quiet desperation, of choking repetitiveness. Approached as such, there is much turmoil going on in a Tarr picture: the unspoken torment of blatant banality. But when this internal malaise served, for instance, a more political purpose in a film like Satan’s Tango, where its characters were used to depict the decaying situation of a nation produced by the effect of a putrid communist system, it works here on a far more basic level with a man and a young woman that are basically only about surviving. Indeed, the narrative almost entirely consists of them performing the same daily routine. They wake up, get dressed, go get water from a well near the house, eat their only meal of the day (a single potato each). They also try numerous times to go to the nearest town, if only their horse would obey them. It has simply stopped doing so for an unknown reason; the viewer slowly starts to realize that the end to this ever repeating existence might be near, especially with the prophetic, bleak (and funny) appearance of a third character midway through the film.

Having drawn an evident and peculiar interest to the very nature of simply existing and wandering through life without another goal than to simply wake up the very next day, a simple yet universal condition of human life, Tarr is also overtly making a film about the apocalypse, about the eventual fate of all of existence. We can also observe that this was a very popular theme for the 2011 moviegoing year, and The Turin Horse is as whimpering and introspective as Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is flamboyant and tempestuous. Both films deal with characters that are eventually inescapably faced to the very shortcoming end of being, and in The Turin Horse, we feel that its helmer has crammed his feeling for all of humanity into the situation of this father and daughter. If this may seem, at the end of the day, frustratingly pessimistic and depressive, it is only because Tarr has perhaps attained an ubiquitous level of truth.

And depressing, I might say, The Turin Horse ultimately is not, because no film this bold and unique and so immersive, that stretches the potential that cinema has of reaching the soul, can be referred to this way. Technically speaking, the picture is a tour de force; your friend probably wouldn’t believe you if you told him that this is a 146-minute movie assembled of only thirty shots. Tarr’s beautiful black-and-white photography and seemingly floating camera plunges you into this unrecognizable but strangely familiar world. If Almanac of Fall in 1983 is the moment where the Magyar filmmaker made the leap from naturalistic social chronicles to the more broad terrain of existential foray, his 1987 masterpiece Damnation is the achievement that fully started to articulate his current style, and The Turin Horse represents the terminal phase of this artistic process, for it strips life – and cinema – to its bare essentials. If Tarr really is leaving the business, I couldn’t think of a more breathtaking farewell.

Obviously, such an uncompromising way of filming is not going to appeal to all tastes. What has to be admired, however, is this willingness found in all of Tarr’s work to free the cinematic form from all its unnecessary components, to try to reach an unprecedented level of purity. Many try to decipher allegories or definitive meanings to his films, but that would be missing their most primal gratification: the pleasure of simply watching.

The Turin Horse is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Benjamin Pelletier