the turin horse

Two nineteenth-century peasants, a father and daughter, lead a hard-scrabble existence in a windblown wasteland. That is all that The Turin Horse (2011) shows us on the screen. And yet, in the way of all true art, it offers much more. The very experience of watching it leads one to places rarely visited. It's a film of wide-open spaces, even though most of it takes place in a dirt-floored hovel. And, while dialogue is sparse, the film itself speaks volumes. Or is it the interior monologue of the viewer that does the talking?

For roughly 2½ hours we solemnly partake in the daily rituals of these people, often in real time. Water is fetched from the well. Potatoes are boiled, then eaten. A stubborn horse is hitched up to a cart, only to be unhitched when it refuses to budge. At one point, we are actually watching clothes dry. Through it all, a howling wind blows relentlessly.

Things become increasingly dark, a nameless dread hovering over the proceedings. Habitual activities take on an air of pointlessness, and the film may, too, for all but the most dedicated viewers. The drudgery experienced by the individuals onscreen becomes our drudgery. We empathize with them, grasping the metaphor, then start to wonder, not only about what's happening in the film, but what's happening to us. What are we watching, and why? The long, slow shots of mundane behavior, beautifully filmed in black and white, give one plenty of time to contemplate the meaning of it all. Ultimately there may be none whatsoever, to the film or anything else.

Like slow-motion Beckett (without the comedy) this is bleak but not necessarily despairing. The characters seem resigned to their miserable fates. Things plod along at an almost unbearable pace, yet I was never less then fascinated by what I was watching---and by the experience of watching it.

The mastery at work here is enough to keep one going. The cinematography is stunning; the entire film consists of only thirty (very graceful) shots. An appropriately minimalist score drones in and out of awareness, adding to the repetition that is key to the experience. The actors are more physical presences than anything else, and must be commended for plunging into this archaic yet archetypal world.

The Turin Horse is simultaneously subtle and heavy-handed. Director Béla Tarr, who claims this will be his final film, is expressing a worldview which will not appeal to everyone, in a way which will not appeal to everyone, for deeply personal reasons. In the process, he has created something rare and profound which demands effort from the viewer but is all the more rewarding because of it. 

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