Pure, forbidding, transfixing, and uncompromising, art-film wizard Béla Tarr bids an apocalyptic farewell with The Turin Horse. Ripe for metaphorical interpretation, its slender setup, black-and-white photography, and nearly unbearable grimness make for a bit of an ordeal. Still, it’s an exceedingly demanding, death-haunted masterpiece for the ages.
Held up as the last grizzled lion of the European modernist tradition, Tarr is an unknown genius. His reputation among critics, directors, and cinephiles rests mainly on two of his nine movies, one of which is the seven-and-a-hour saga Sátántangó, about a decrepit agricultural commune invaded by a con man. From that mind now comes, aptly, a film about duration and endurance.
Set in a 19th-century wilderness, The Turin Horse is also the logical, and indeed terminal, successor to Robert Bresson’s 1966 gloomy classic Au hasard Balthazar. It was inspired by an 1889 anecdote involving Friedrich Nietzsche, in which he observed a cart driver mercilessly beating an intractable horse and, weeping, threw himself around its neck.
The stableman and daughter hardly speak; the barbarity of their struggle for survival as they fulfill their daily tasks requires no explanation. The only sound is the incessant howling of the wind, with intermittent interruptions from the thrum of mournful, repeating violins. Yet these ordinary hardships take on cosmic weight; this is tedium vividly rendered.
Tarr is the cinema’s greatest crafter of total environments. In Tarr’s earlier productions – the nightmarish Sátántangó and the magisterial Werckmeister harmóniák – the heaviness was punctuated by incursions of the surreal and the grotesque. Next to them, The Turin Horse is a pared-down, sinewy parable. In it, he dials up one of his most immersive milieus: the wooden table, the stone walls, the rough floors, the ropes on the horse, the skin on the boiled potatoes.
Tarr’s personal experience and reaction against communism pre-1989, capitalism post-1989, and religion throughout, earned him a cynicism when, mixed with the lushness and severity of his cinematographic vision and his famous penchant for ultra-long, elaborately-choreographed deep-focus takes, creates some of the most exquisite and melancholy images you’ll ever see on screen. With the pictorial sublimity of an optical jeweler, The Turin Horse has a burnished beauty that’s awe-inspiring, like a clear window into a faraway land.
Time-stretching, expertly constructed, and painfully elliptical, Tarr’s best films are arresting, strange, wrenching, pessimistic, and laced with black humour. Watching each of them is like simultaneously taking an ice-cold shower and visiting the planet’s greatest art museum. They are so unyielding that when it is over, you feel relief, and outright awe. Here, in his post-Nietzschean, post-Marxist, post-Christian way, Tarr takes a minuscule incident about the fate of a horse abused in the streets and mutates it into an erudite Genesis story in reverse.
If you’ve got the stomach for it, The Turin Horse is an absolute, distinctive, and intoxicating vision of life at the end of its tether, of a world going inexorably into a final darkness. It’s an experience unlike any other, enveloping in a way that conventional movies are not, comparable to starting down the road with an empty sack, then, over the course of the journey, having it weighed down with rocks until you can’t go on. But this backbreaking effect is not an artistic failure; it is, on the contrast, exactly what Tarr sets out to achieve.
A master of sinister showmanship, Tarr exits the set with a sublime memento mori, an undiluted auteurist triumph, assuring his place in the hall of fame, in the ranks of Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky.