Though being a little ponderous at times, “The Turin Horse” can be a mesmerizing experience to you if you are willing to give it a chance. The movie may bore some of you because of its very slow progression for around 2.5 hours, but its austere observation on “the heaviness of human existence” is simultaneously curious and thought-provoking while requiring some degrees of patience from us. I think the movie is an acquired taste, but I was drawn to it about while musing on the hardships of our mere existence which will inevitably face the end waiting for us.
The movie starts with the narration which tells us about one episode about Friedrich Nietzsche in his final years. On January 3rd in 1889, while taking a walk in Turino, Italy, Nietzsche came across a stubborn horse refusing to move even when its owner angrily whipped it hard. Nietzsche interrupted the owner to save it from its misery and embraced that horse, but then he had a severe mental breakdown. After mumbling that “Mother, I was a fool”, he remained nearly silent until his death while being taken care of by his mother and his sister.
The movie does not confirm us whether a horse and a farmer going back to their home during its opening scene are the same horse and man Nietzsche encountered, but this long-take opening scene is captivating while the Steadicam camera fluidly moves around them. The camera follows and observes them closely while looking around several details to draw our attention; sometimes, it effortlessly moves away and watches them from the distance while moving in parallel with them. This is one of the long, uninterrupted scenes you will get relentlessly throughout the film(the movie is made up of only 30 takes, by the way), so you will soon find out whether you like the movie or not.
The story focuses on the six bleak and melancholic days of the farmer(János Derzsi), his daughter(Erika Bók), and their old horse(Ricsi). They have lived in a shabby house on the field which has only few basic things to support their meager life inside. The farmer is helped by his daughter a lot because he cannot use one of his hands. She helps him change the clothes when he is about to sleep or when he wakes up later. She helps him put the horse into the stable. She also cooks a meal for him and herself, which is always boiled potato. How does he earn his living with his cart and horse? I don’t know, and the movie has little interest in it, let alone the world outside their farm.
Anyway, they gradually become isolated in their place while going through their daily routine. The heavy wind roars around the house and the barren field, and the horse does not want to go outside. The farmer decides to take a day off, but the next day is pretty much same for them with the same ominous sound of gale outside the house. It feels like they are the only two people on the earth, and the monotonous interior surrounding them uncannily reminds me of Samuel Beckett’s play “Endgame”, in which its two main characters live alone in their barren house while separated from the world outside.
Unlike the characters in that Beckett’s play, the farmer and his daughter do not talk much with each other, even when some noisy visitor(Mihály Kormos) comes to their house for buying a bottle of brandy. The visitor talks a lot about the crumbling state of humanity and civilization with a view which Nietzsche may appreciate. Though the farmer disregards them as nonsense, his pessimistic words disturbingly resonate with the harsh weather outside, which looks a lot like a harbinger of the doom.
Their circumstance becomes more bleak and desperate as the days go by. The horse now begins to refuse to eat. The book given to the farmer’s daughter by the gypsies who briefly drop by the farm adds another ominous tone to their small world. After finding that the well near their house is dried, they finally decide to move out, but, for some reason not shown to us, they change their mind on their way and then returns to their house. While all these things happen, the wind keeps blowing outside the house as if it wanted to blow it away like the leaves flown away in the air. With the dirgeful score by Mihály Vig, you may think the end is approaching to them.
Everything I described above is masterfully shown to us under the co-director/co-writer Béla Tarr’s meticulous direction, and the movie is an interesting experience to say the least. The crisp black and white cinematography by Fred Kelemen is stunning with its bleak beauty and careful compositions, and his camera unobtrusively moves or lingers around the space and the characters while letting us immerse ourselves into the repeated rhythm of their plain daily life.
Watching its characters slowly shrouded by the feeling of doom, I recalled what I thought about the end of universe years ago. I heard that the universe will be a dark, cold place in the end, and I thought about how depressing it will be to face the end of universe while swallowed by darkness. The same thing can be said about the end of our life; everything in your life will be crumbled along with you, and nothing much will be left for you in the dark void though it won’t probably matter to you much at that time. We cannot change this, and we heavily struggle to live another day like the farmer and his daughter in the movie, while moving closer to that dark void day by day.
Béla Tarr, who made this film with his wife and the editor Ágnes Hranitzky, announced his retirement while the movie was made, though he is only 57 at present. Considering that it makes us think about the end of our existence in the world, “The Turin Horse” feels like the appropriate final chapter to the career of one fascinating director who deserves to be known to more audiences.