If the name Béla Tarr rings any sort of bell in your head, chances are you’ve already formed an unwavering opinion of his work. He hasn’t exactly shaken up his approach since 1988’s “Damnation” (that said, this writer — probably like most — isn’t familiar with his crop of ’90s short films), and if despairing (yet deeply moving) minimalist films composed of stark black-and-white single takes doesn’t tickle your fancy, this film won’t change your mind.
Nobody has stuck out like a sore-thumb more in these last two decades of cinema than this Hungarian auteur. Modern filmmakers have fully digested mentors Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman into their own styles, quite often producing lesser results. Tarr, who shares certain stylistic qualities of the aforementioned film giants, feels less like a student and more so like a peer employed in the wrong era. Maybe it’s a vague thing to say, but his perspective and sensibilities always seemed firmly rooted in ’60s and ’70s art cinema.
So maybe that’s why the director’s vow to retire feels like such a loss. We’re not only losing a fantastic artist; we’re losing the one person that continued an undiluted method of a generation long gone. Maybe we’re being too melodramatic and this is just a Jay-Z move, and in three years Tarr will unleash his 15-hour magnum opus comprised of only two shots. Either way, it was a somber way to enter his latest/last picture, “The Turin Horse,” an already-daunting piece focusing on poverty and hopelessness.
A tale of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche precedes the movie, concerning a time when he was driven to embrace a horse that was being whipped by its owner, before he collapsed and was carried away. After the incident, the final decade of his life was spent in almost total silence — but what became of the horse?
Owned by a man and his daughter, the weary steed charges along through the plains during a violent wind storm, carrying said man to the location we’ll spend the rest of the movie trapped in — a dark, empty house on a desolate farmland. Here we are introduced to their daily routines: the patriarch Ohlsdorfer likely does some errands in town, then has his daughter undress and dress him upon his return. After that she cooks a potato dinner, gathers water from the well, and one of them peers out of the window as if it was a television set. Maybe they did more when their farm was arable or the storm wasn’t so violent, but this is their life now and they get by, biding time for some sort of miracle. That is until said horse refuses to eat and be of any use, which slowly sets off a chain of events that worsens the life of the family.
Tarr’s eye is attuned to every detail of their habitual behavior and relishes in it, somehow making a man blowing on his hot supper incredibly intriguing. He finds and exploits these moments as the camera follows every action in the house, quietly embracing and exhibiting the grim environment. No shot is too long for this filmmaker, and he does as much as he can in an uninterrupted take, making every minute spent with this unfortunate family feel even heavier.
Aside from the occasional (and admittedly humorous) vulgarity spewing from Ohlsdorfer, “The Turin Horse” operates with little dialogue. When the soundtrack isn’t overtaken by the fierce winds attacking the household, a miserable tune arises, a perfectly fitting companion to the harrowing images. In theory it might seem like overkill, but the filmmaker’s reluctance to delve into melodrama (or even traditional plot) keep things from becoming too thick. They’re devastating in their own subtle way, such as when the family’s well inexplicably goes dry — a moment of despair that both the characters and audience fully understand without the need of additional emotional overtures.
Tarr’s final film is ultimately an extension of his decision to give up, and keeping with that, the movie closes without even a grain of optimism. Despite its descent from bad to worse, it thankfully never feels repetitive. This is likely due to the director’s constantly wandering lens and eye for even the smallest idiosyncrasy, each lingering second striking at the heart and uncovering pure humanity. It won’t win any new fans (and judging by the sighs and subsequent giggles during our screening, it’s probably not an entry point for newcomers), but it’s without a doubt a haunting picture that’ll burn into your conscious. Quite unforgettable, whether you fancy it or not. [A-]