Directors: Béla Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky
Screenplay: László Krasznahorkai & Béla Tarr
Starring: János Derzsi, Erika Bók, Mihály Kormos
Producer: Gábor Téni
Running Time: 146 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
The Turin Horse is a film I was simultaneously desperate to watch and scared of actually sitting through. I'd seen some incredible reviews for the film, but after reading probably too much about it before I'd seen it, I was continuously warned that this was an extremely slow-moving, depressing and difficult film to watch. I haven't seen any of Béla Tarr's work before so I wasn't fully sure what to expect, but my mind had painted a few ideas.
The Turin Horse opens with a narrator (I'm guessing it's Tarr himself as there isn't an actor credited for it) describing the famous story of how Nietzsche witnessed the flogging of a horse in Turin, prompting him to run over to the beast, hug it's neck and break down in tears. After this, the philosopher fell into a mental collapse from which he never recovered. Our narrator tells us that the following film describes what happened to that horse afterwards.
The ensuing film consists of an elderly farmer and his daughter, the owners of the horse, going about their unforgivingly difficult daily existence. Spanning six days which are divided by inter-titles and often a little narration, we witness the couple's repetitive routine of dressing, getting water from the well, preparing their horse and cart, cooking, eating and going to bed. Little is said, we merely share the difficult drudgery of their lives. Then, beginning with a marked decline in the horse's health, strange small changes and events gradually occur that make the days increasingly difficult, leading to a terrifyingly bleak climax.
So from that explanation you can probably gather that the film isn't far from the heavy going wrist-slitter that I expected. Luckily however, it is also worthy of the praise that has been lavished upon it. Yes it's not an easy watch by any means, but it's such a unique and powerful experience that you have to respect it's craft. Also, as stripped down, minimalist and slow as the film was at a hefty two and a half hours, it remains strangely bewitching to watch. With little to experience other than brutal routine, hardship and suffering, the film becomes a hypnotic plunge into the end of the world. Also, due to the repetitive and sparse nature of proceedings, every alteration to the daily toil is heightened and becomes an epic occurrence, even if it's just that the horse hasn't eaten or a strange neighbour has come around to rant about what's wrong with the world. What saved the film from being that little bit too difficult for me was also how these small changes to each day became progressively more strange and hint at devastation beyond the farmhouse's walls, building to quite a surreal final half hour which turned the film from a depressing study of rural life at the time to a possible depiction of the rapture itself.
On a surface level there is much to keep you interested in the film too. The film, shot in black and white (or rather various shades of grey) looks absolutely stunning. Like Pier Paolo Pasolini, Tarr is able to produce imagery that simultaneously looks grim and dirty yet strangely beautiful. His restrained use of camera movement and composition is sublime yet never steps on the feet of the oppressive atmosphere he is trying to create. Equally as powerful is the soundtrack. The viscous howl of the wind is ever present and the creaking of old doors and the clatter of rusty equipment is heightened to force you to feel every ounce of pain that the protagonists are subjected to. Mihály Vig's magnificent score doesn't make things easy either, constantly repeating the same cyclical theme, creating a vortex of music that drives the viewer deeper into the abyss.
As praiseworthy as much of the film is, its dedication to making things as difficult as possible means that it is a hard film to love and I'm sure it could have been equally as powerful with at least half an hour shaved off its running time. Nonetheless I can't deny that watching The Turin Horse was an extraordinary experience. I can't say I fully grasped 'the point of it all' so to speak, but that mystery is part of the film's beauty and I can't get over its uncanny ability to be simultaneously brutally draining and strangely hypnotic.
The Turin Horse is out on 10th September on Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Artificial Eye. I was lucky enough to check out the Blu-Ray edition and I can safely say this is definitely the way to watch this film (behind the cinema of course). The striking and powerful black and white imagery comes through clearly without sacrificing the oppressive grey tones. It was a marvel to display on the HD projector I watched it on. Audio is great too. It was only in stereo, but I imagine this is intentional, being such a sparse film. As a bonus feature you get a 12 minute short film from Tarr called Hotel Magnezit, made in 1978 which is a nice bonus for fans of the director.