This Berlinale silver bear winner is rumoured to be Bela Tarr’s directorial swansong. Turin Horse is a deeply personal and philosophical film that masterfully uses the impoverished and desolate backdrop of the Hungarian countryside to take us on a harrowingly bleak journey through six days of spiralling despair and misery.
Those familiar with the works of Bela Tarr will know what to expect from this beautifully crafted and thought provoking example of ‘slow cinema’. With next to no discernable dialogue, tedious repetition and a lack of any conventional plot devices we are literally left following an elderly man and his grown up daughter as they go through the daily rigmaroles of a life devoid of simple pleasures. Apart from the numerous scenes of preparing and eating potatoes and the odd excursion to the well to gather water, little else happens in this symbolic, slow burning social warning.
There are many who will no-doubt perceive Turin Horse as little more than an example of overly pretentious art, striving to alienate its audience in some vain attempt to be heralded as a masterpiece. It’s an understandable viewpoint which is very difficult to argue against as Turin Horse, like all of Tarr’s work is a very subjective film which often relays its message at the expense of the audience’s patience. However, Tarr’s work is a prime of example of art which gives back as much as you’re willing to put into it. Turin Horse is truly a hypnotic film which, if you allow yourself to be consumed by its dark foreboding atmosphere of fear and repression, will ultimately leave you feeling as emotionally effected as even the most poignant and depressingly divisive of tragedies.
It’s impossible to ever come to a clear interpretation of the films hidden meaning but there’re still plenty of interestingly profane elements of symbolism from which to shape your own personal opinions. Opening with a voiceover re-telling the extraordinary tale of how philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche apparently once stopped a cab driver from ferociously whipping his horse before the famed philosopher collapsed and spent the next ten years of his life in demented silence. At first it seems like a curiously irrelevant opening to a movie but on closer observation acts as a key into the realm of Tarr’s deeply cogitative and abstract vision. Subtle comparisons between how the daughter treats her father and their work horse lead to some interesting conclusions. The way in which she helps her father undress is strikingly similar to how she removes the horse’s bridle making the cruelty Nietzsche observed on that fateful day draws comparisons with this elderly man and his numerous shared mannerisms with the horse (including the way he eats his potatoes like a horse using its hoofs). Tarr appears to use the unrelenting gale which continually plagues this bleak rural wasteland as a metaphorical representation of the coachman’s whip, attacking this old man and slowly forcing him into submission. Perhaps this is a visual example of the increasing level of human cruelty encountered in these more improvised areas of Eastern Europe.
The arrival of the travelling gypsies could also be seen as an illustration of western influences corrupting the fragile infrastructure of these historically disadvantaged nations. The traveller’s attempts to steal the natural resources of this ramshackle home, whilst also forcing some foreign literature upon the passive daughter, could easily be read as a symbolic warning over the concerns of mass globalization.
The most interesting explanation of this seemingly uneventful, yet visually majestic exploration of one man’s vision of the world is the belief that Turin Horse is in fact a surreal interpretation of the apocalypse. Reading from the book of genesis, it would appear these six days of increasing deterioration are in fact the reverse of how God is purported to have created the world. It’s a monumental game changer once realised and a potential revelation which only adds to the already mesmerising visual symphony of human misery which has over the years become a trademark of this intellectually challenging director.
Turin Horse is a remarkably dense and intriguing film which begs you to return to its fascinatingly subtle blend of symbolism and sublimely framed shots of psychologically penetrating desolate beauty, which, as a farewell to filmmaking fittingly leaves us desperate for more.