Never a prolific force, the Hungarian director Béla Tarr has declared that ‘The Turin Horse’ will be his last film. He has also suggested that the reason for hanging up his boots is apparent in the film – which makes ‘The Turin Horse’ even more of a glorious, terrifying mystery. It’s an epic portrait of drudging peasantry, set, biblically, over six days – and it is a film that drills into the core of your soul.
It begins with a prologue explaining how the philosopher Nietzsche witnessed a horse being beaten in Turin in 1889, immediately before his breakdown: ‘Of the horse, we know nothing,’ says the intro pointedly. Is this the story of that horse? Or is it simply a story of anonymous sufferers in a godless world living the sort of miserable, uncomprehending life that may have sent Nietzsche into a spin in the first place? We spend the rest of the film in the company of a grizzled, white-haired father (János Derzsi) and his equally taciturn adult daughter (Erika Bók), who live alone in wild countryside with only a tired horse for company. As the days go on, the howling wind grows louder, several interlopers ominously disrupt their routine and the light literally – and, we assume, metaphorically – begins to go out.
There are no direct answers, and the mastery of ‘The Turin Horse’ is that its meaning or meanings are there for the taking. Tarr works in mesmerising harmony with his cinematographer Fred Kelemen (shooting in long shots and velvety blacks) and composer Mihály Vig (adopting a hypnotic dirge that rises and falls with a sense of import). Together, they lead us magnetically through the routines of this austere pair – taking out the horse, fetching water, eating just one boiled potato each for dinner… It feels like the creation story in reverse – a terrible, unavoidable walk into the dark.