Cinephiles’ commitment to austere, ‘slow cinema’ faces a new challenge with the release on DVD of Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011), told with the typically repetitive, yet sumptuous quality that audiences have come to expect from the Hungarian director. The film opens with the account of a small moment in the life of German Existentialist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who in 1889 witnessed the flogging of a horse on the streets of Turin which resulted in his mental breakdown.
The film’s narrative shifts from the philosopher to the carthorse owner, Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi), and his daughter (Erika Bók), who we watch over a series of days in a multitude of ordinary tasks such as boiling potatoes or fetching water. Plot -for want of a better word – is not really the essence of what is reportedly the 56-year-old Hungarian auteur’s final cinematic experiment. Each of the 12 long takes has been carefully considered and executed with the help of some hypnotic monochrome cinematography. This is very much a case of the devil being found in the detail, as expert cinematography from Fred Keleman skilfully manages to reveal the texture of wooden tables, stone floors and crumpled clothing.
In minute moments of history, from the flogging of the titular horse to the daily uniformity of Ohlsdorfer’s life, Tarr speaks profoundly of quiet, unimportant actions. For those unfamiliar with the director’s work, The Turin Horse may come across as inaccessible and demanding, but committing to this 146 minute trial with an open mind is an ultimately rewarding experience. The bafflement of some viewers is perhaps to be expected. Yet it seems correct that cinema should, at times, be this demanding, absorbing and elusive.
Further criticisms will likely be levelled at the self-indulgent quality of the piece, but as those familiar with Tarr’s work will know, he is not a man given to pandering to the wants of audiences. As the tale loops and loops – becoming ever stranger with the arrival of a band of gypsies upon the hill or the horse refusing to eat – we understand that Tarr means not to make things easy for his onlookers.
Both the completeness and nothingness of life exists in Tarr’s The Turin Horse. By the time the credits roll, your patience may well have been thoroughly tried and tested, but once frustration wanes you just might find yourself remaining haunted by this expert example of visual poetry.
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