Slow cinema fans rejoice! Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr’s festival favourite The Turin Horse (A torinói ló, 2011) finally reaches UK cinemas this week courtesy of Artificial Eye, delivering an austere, monochrome tale of equine melancholy, boiled potatoes and everything in between. Maligned by some due to its crawling pace and monotonous repetition, there is still something inexplicably mesmerising and entrancing about Tarr’s reputed last film.
The film begins in complete darkness as Tarr’s own resonant, hypnotising voiceover regales the story of how in 1889, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche effectively lost his mind after witnessing an exhausted old carriage horse being flogged in the streets of Turin. We are then shown the events that lead up to the incident as grizzled farmer Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi), his stoic daughter (Erika Bók) and their disenchanted horse struggle to scratch a living out in the tempestuous, semi-apocalyptic countryside.
The above synopsis may seem brief – and for good reason. Aside from a late appearance from a troublesome band of roving gypsies, there is little or no actual dramatic action, with much of the film taken up by scenes of the two peasants picking at boiled potatoes, collecting pails of water or urging their world-weary steed to pull its heavy cart to the sound of howling wind. Just 30 long takes make up The Turin Horse’s 146 minute runtime, and for fans of frenetic, fast-paced editing, this will almost certainly be a major sticking point.
However, for those that can embrace (or at the very least, look past) the film’s near-comatose pace, Tarr’s latest offers a quite exceptional masterclass in black and white cinematography. Regular collaborator Fred Kelemen’s exacting 35mm camerawork fuses perfectly with the Hungarian filmmaker’s predominantly sedate direction, yet he’s also given the opportunity to defy expectation on occasion. One looping crane shot during the final third finally gives the audience a glimpse into the family’s life-giving well – revealing it to be tragically empty.
Accusations of over-indulgence, overt pretencion and audience inaccessibility will undoubtedly loom large over Tarr’s alleged final outing (entering into Nietzche-esque retirement) – and understandably so. However, for those willing to adjust their normal film-watching habits and embrace slow cinema’s painstaking attention to detail (here, framing is the true exponent of narrative thrust, not dialogue or physical expression), The Turin Horse may just well be the much-maligned form’s magnum opus. NB. For those wondering, and in Tarr’s own words, “We do not know what happened to the horse.”