Peasant life in black and white

By Drew Hunt

One of last year’s best films, The Turin Horse,” will finally have its U.S. release. Reportedly the final work of Hungarian director Béla Tarr, the film begins with an opening narration that describes a time in 1899 when Friedrich Nietzsche witnessed a cantankerous cabbie whipping the defenseless horse that pulled his carriage after stepping out of his home in Turin, Italy. After putting an end to the violence, it is said that Nietzsche was so driven to emotion that he threw his arms around the horse’s neck, sobbing.

The incident reputedly coincided with the ensuing dementia that would eventually claim his life in 1900, but how this story relates to Tarr’s film—which, ultimately, has little to do with Nietzschian history—rests on a single notion: We know what happened to Nietzsche, but “of the horse, we know nothing.”

After giving the audience a second or two to process this realization, Tarr begins his film with a torrential opening image of a man and horse caught in the middle of a vicious windstorm rendered in stunning black and white. As an onslaught of leaves and debris envelops them, Tarr tracks their journey with a long and rootless shot, careening to and fro, accompanied by a disarming, cello-laden soundtrack.

In this single, masterfully orchestrated scene, Tarr lays bare the stylistics to which he’s partial. But most importantly, it’s a bracing opening salvo in a film that, despite its miniscule milieu, runs the full gamut of the human condition at Tarr’s typically unhurried pace.

When the man—a grizzled old rube named Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi)—and the horse finally make it home, they are met by his daughter (Erika Bók), and the two immediately set to tasks  seen repeated over and over for the next six days, such as preparing the daily meal of a single potato, retrieving water from their adjacent well and the daughter helping Ohlsdorfer, whose left arm hangs limp and dead, dress and undress, all while the tumultuous wind blows outside.

Tarr and his co-director, Ágnes Hranitzky, pay special attention to these mundane tasks, depicting them in long and uninterrupted takes as to amplify the inherent tedium of each one, which, in turn, implicates the inherent uniformity of everyday life. The measured pacing is typical of Tarr, who prefers a few elongated moments to an abundance of sparsely assembled ones.

As the repetitious structure of the plot unfolds, a pair of scenes break up the routine. A neighbor pops in to borrow some vodka and shares his apocalyptic, vaguely nihilistic theories of the world’s impending doom, and a group of gypsies threaten to steal the water from their well.

The film’s narrative, barebone as it is, takes these two instances into account later on, but only obliquely. Eventually, the text of “The Turin Horse” takes a back seat to the subtextual and even extra-textual, making it impossible to ignore the untold stories playing out just beneath the film’s scant surface.

Tarr is a director with a deep sense of the human condition. From our smallest, most inconspicuous gestures to our broadest, most inexplicable emotions, all are on display in “The Turin Horse,” a film with a microcosmic scope but macrocosmic concerns.