There was a point in watching “The Turin Horse” where I wanted to curl up in a dark place somewhere and sleep forever. It’s depressing. But not in the “I want to cry” way. It’s depressing in the “Oh, so life is meaningless?” kind of way.
It’s said that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche arrived in Turin, Italy, in 1889 to see a cabman whipping his horse in the town square. In a fit of mania, Nietzsche threw his arms around the horse’s neck while sobbing and begging the driver to stop. The driver stops. Nietzsche is taken home where he lies motionless until uttering his last words, “Mutter, ich bin dumme” and dying 10 years later without having spoken another word.
As the film says, “We do not know what happened to the horse.”
The film follows that same cabman, Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi, “The Notebook”) and his daughter (Erika Bok, “The Man from London”) who live in the Italian countryside. Slowly but surely, their lives begin to fall apart for no particular reason. Over a 2 1/2-hour length and 30 camera shots in total, viewers see every last bit of normalcy wrenched from the destitute various degrees.
Those who have seen a Bela Tarr film will know what to expect. But those who haven’t, be warned: this is not a movie to be enjoyed. It’s mental and emotional toil. The tone is so bleak and dreadful, the landscape so empty, the protagonists so unknowable, that it’s sometimes hard to care about what happens. But, it has a mesmerizing surrealism that’s hard to describe.
Shot in black-and-white, each take lasts upwards of 12-15 minutes. Despite two drawn-out monologues and one heated encounter, the dialogue is minimal. One could probably count on one hand the number of times Ohlsdorfer speaks to his daughter, or vice versa.
The cinematography is impeccable. All 30 scenes are intricately detailed, and what’s not said is as important as what’s said. Little details inside of their house, like an empty birdcage or an unnamed photograph, hint at the myriad untold stories beyond their desolate shelter.
The film is so stripped of excess that sometimes it feels more like a skeleton than a full-blooded movie. Ohlsdorfer and his unnamed daughter are never expanded upon. The audience doesn’t know their backstory because it wouldn’t serve the film, but this makes them feel like sketches rather than actual people. After the two-hour mark, it’s hard to care about their fate, no matter how devastating the final scene is.
This is a post-apocalyptic tale without a physical apocalypse, and since it’s director Bela Tarr’s final film, it ends up being poignant. Still, there’s a good chance that, if you aren’t familiar with his work or if you aren’t a fan of long shots, you’ll hate this movie. It’s unapologetically minimalist and jarring. But it’s clear that it never set out to be anything else.
Title: “The Turin Horse”
Director: Bela Tarr
Release date: Feb. 15, 2011