The Turin Horse (2011)
Director: Bela Tarr
Cast: Janos Derzsi, Erika Bok
My Rating: 10/10
In Short: A film beyond words; 150 minutes of purity
The more of his work that I see, the more I am becoming convinced that Bela Tarr is the greatest filmmaker who has ever existed. Before viewing his work, I bestowed that title equally among three cinematic greats: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Ingmar Bergman and Michael Haneke. But now it looks as if a fourth must share in the fight for such a unanimous and definite description. The Turin Horse is the third film I have seen from Tarr; the first two were Werckmeister Harmonies and Damnation; I am seeing my fourth, The Man from London, later this week and I am waiting to buy a box set of his seven hour magnum opus Satantango next month. With his latest movie, Tarr has announced his retirement from filmmaking. Though he will be sorely missed, he has left a catalogue of nothing short of stunning work that deserves all the acclaim it can get, and then some. The Turin Horse, his farewell to cinema, is a film beyond words; to call it a stunning, breathtaking masterpiece is to insult it, as those words are far too meager and pathetic to describe its true power and worth, which I believe to be incalculable and indescribable.
Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi) lives with his daughter (Erika Bok, who played the little girl who killed her cat in Satantango) in a rundown old house in the middle of nowhere. Surrounding them is a vast expanse of grey fog and stormy weather. Outside, a brutal wind howls and never stops. It is like an unending scream of pain and despair. The film chronicles six days on this small farm. Each morning, the daughter rises from her bed, grabs two buckets and embarks on a short journey through the miserable weather to a well to collect water. Then she dresses her father, who attempts and fails to take his unnamed horse from the barn to ride it. Then at dinner time, they each eat one baked potato, breaking it to pieces with their fingers and attempting to cool them by blowing gently. Then they go to sleep. They repeat this soulless, silent routine each and every day, and barely say a word to each other. There are only two or three scenes where dialogue plays a major part, but the film might as well be completely silent. On the soundtrack, there is a haunting theme from regular Tarr collaborator Mihaly Vig, which is the underlying score for many scenes. When it’s not playing, all we hear is the wind, breaking the mindless silence with its rebellious screech.
The events of the film unfold in typical Tarr fashion: a series of unbroken, long lasting tracking shots. There are only 30 shots in the entire 150 minute film, which equals an average of 5 minutes per shot, and only 12 shots per hour. There are many who will say that due to this film’s generally unvarying routine, slowness and despairing silence that this is Tarr’s most boring film. I disagree. I have never seen a Tarr film that I found boring, and indeed I thought his final masterwork is enthralling for every minute. With the fluid long takes Tarr manages to put you into a trance; you can barely tear your eyes away from the screen, and only the sound of your breathing reminds you you’re even there. As I watched The Turin Horse, it felt as if I was leaving my body and viewing the film from an empty space; I didn’t exist, there was only the movie, and when it was over and I felt my body move again it was difficult to register any movement or life. I was stunned, almost comatose, completely frozen by what I had just experienced. Tarr tends to have that effect.
Originally when I wrote this review I described some of my favorite shots, such as the farmer, horse and daughter riding away into the distance and then reappearing after a short time, or the harrowing journey to the well each morning, but I deleted them and started over. To describe the shots in a review is to remove the experience of viewing them, feeling them. I am glad I chose not to read any reviews before watching it, as they would have robbed me of the enormous satisfaction of discovering them within the film.
The Turin Horse is a film you should walk into knowing as little as possible. And anyway, even by reading a review you’re not losing any of the experience, because mere words can’t describe what Tarr’s images convey. This is 150 minutes of purity, terrifying beauty, overwhelming imagery and incomprehensible power. For his final film, Bela Tarr channels elements from all his most famous previous work, and combines them as one, in this film beyond a film, this rare chance to be plugged into life. One person on IMDb wrote that “cinema dies with Bela Tarr.” I couldn’t have put it better myself. This is the best movie released in 2011, and I am concerned that without geniuses like Tarr, cinema will continue to rot and decay until eventually it is a shrewd caricature, devoid completely of the elements that once made it great.