The Turin Horse (2011)

07 December 2011

Guest review: Srini S. is based in India.

Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s (supposed) final film, The Turin Horse, fulfilled my expectations of it in many ways. Of all the films of his that I have watched, I keep returning to the seven hour epic, Sátántangó (1994) the most. Not so much in terms of number of times I have watched the film, but in terms of how often I think about it. The Turin Horse has many things in common with that film thematically and aesthetically, but there are significant differences.

Tarr collaborates with familiar talent, namely writer Krasznahorkai, musician Mihaly Vig and actors János Derzsi and Erika Bók (who can forget the little girl and the cat in Sátántangó!) to good effect. Black and white cinematography is a given in his films I guess and so is his distinct tracking camera. The location, episodic story structure and music are all reminiscent of the aforementioned epic. Though the location is perfectly plausible as an extremely sparsely occupied village, it betrays an underlying deliberate attempt to construct such a place for maximum visual effect. That doesn’t take away much from what the film has to offer though.

What differentiates this film from some of his earlier films is its simplicity. Extreme focus by the way of repetition and isolation of the characters (mainly, a man, his daughter and a horse) from pretty much the rest of the world forces us to be completely immersed in the details of the daily lives of the characters (mostly comprised of drawing water from a well, wearing layers of clothing, boiling and eating a potato - the only source of food and feeding the horse, and all of this in the face of extremely harsh winds). The camera closely tracks each and every move made by the characters, but we never get a feeling of what the rest of their environment looks like. For example, we don’t have an aerial shot of the village (if you could call it one). A huge meadow in front of their dillapidated home is shown sometimes, but it doesn’t reveal much beyond the point-of-view of these characters. The only exceptions to this are the two brief instances where this isolation is breached - namely a neighbor knocking at their door for some fruit brandy and a bunch of gypsies passing by this place, momentarily stopping for water. Even then we don’t know where they come from or go to. Another example of the isolation is the opening scene where the man riding the horse-cart is beautifully filmed, accompanied by amazing music, but the camera so closely tracks the cart or the animal that little else (besides the ever blowing storm) is revealed.

What lies beneath all these stylistic choices? Tarr himself provides us an answer to this when he mentioned (in a different context) that he makes the same film every time. It is therefore natural to expect recurring themes in his film. Commentary on self destructive nature of mankind, despair and lack of hope seems to come across fairly strongly in his films including The Turin Horse. Tarr in an interview mentions that this film is about the heaviness of everyday life. To his credit, he conveys this feeling effectively and keeps it plausible within the environment he constructs. How this applies to humanity in a wider context is not something that is obvious to me on first viewing, assuming that Tarr and Krasznahorkai did intend it to be a broader commentary on life.