out of Five
Running time: 154
Hungarian director Bela Tarr, famed for his seven hour epics and his brooding black and white cinematography, delivers his swan song with The Turin Horse – a mysterious, doom-laden account of the hardship and ruin a father and daughter face in 19th century Hungary.
What’s it all about?
A voiceover informs us that in Turin in 1889, the existential philosopher Neitzsche was so upset by the sight of horse being flogged by its cabman owner, that he suffered a mental breakdown. Bela Tarr’s film (a collaboration with his co-director wife, Agnes Hranitzky) opens as cabman Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi) is driving the horse home, before going on to explore Ohlsdorfer’s simple, agrarian life with his nameless daughter (Erika Bok) in their remote farmhouse over a period of six days.
Ostensibly, little happens in Tarr’s film - we see the same grueling daily routine over and over again, the daughter dressing her father (who has a lame arm), preparing meals and fetching water from the well. Yet at the same time, something tumultuous is just around the corner as each day their situation becomes stranger: at first their horse refuses to move or eat, then there’s talk of a local village being totally destroyed and gypsies descend to pillage the farm, while outside a never-ending gale wails ferociously on.
With such minimal dialogue, characterisation and action, and an emphasis throughout on repetition, some may find this a stamina test for the attention span. But gradually, as even the sun disappears, the father and daughter’s repetitive daily routine starts to become more ominous. Are we in 19th century Hungary, we wonder, or in a vision of hell?
As he always does, Tarr creates a visual feast for the retina. Every frame could be a photograph – not because he prefers lengthy, distant takes (his camera is surprisingly mobile and inquisitive for a ‘slow cinema’ director) but because each frame is perfectly composed with care and attention paid to the texture of faces, farmhouse walls and objects. It’s rare also for a director to dare to linger on a totally black screen, but Tarr does so, forcing us to listen to confused voices and the distant wind, plunging us into the same bewildering situation as the father and daughter.
Bela Tarr’s take on apocalypse movies is as far from Armageddon as you could imagine. His two-hour-plus film won’t be for everyone, but The Turin Horse is a singular and immersive claustrophobic world, infused with a sense of fantasy and menace.