Béla Tarr’s supposedly final film, co-directed by Ágnes Hranitzky, sees the filmmaker exhibit the tenacity and methodical approach of a crime scene investigator as he combs through the tedious daily mundanities of a destitute father and daughter in search of clues that might reveal a deeper purpose to the overpowering banality of human existence. As each monotonous day of The Turin Horse crawls by, Tarr and Hranitzky examine the pair’s routine from every angle, their unblinking lens an extension of their resolve to scrutinize every detail. Each of the film’s 30 meticulously planned shots seeks to unearth any possible comfort or profoundness hidden within life’s daily toils, but with every extraordinarily executed take, the filmmakers seem more convinced of the hopelessness of their search. Watching The Turin Horse, you sense the filmmakers imploring you to examine the evidence yourself, defying you to come to a different conclusion.
The film opens with a retelling of the unverified but well-accepted account of a cabman mercilessly beating his stubborn horse in the streets of Turin until a horrified Friedrich Nietzsche intervenes, throwing his arms around the horse’s neck and suffering a mental breakdown from the ordeal. Nietzsche lived out the rest of his life in demented silence, but as the film’s narrator wryly observes, “We do not know what happened to the horse.” Tarr and Hranitzky’s film concerns itself not so much with the horse in the incident, but with the everyday minutia of its impoverished owner (János Derzsi) and his dutiful but weary daughter (Erika Bók). The wind howls ceaselessly outside their stone house as they unquestioningly repeat their everyday business of getting dressed, gathering water, boiling potatoes for their simple meal, unsuccessfully attempting to hitch their deteriorating horse to its cab, and inevitably, absentmindedly gazing out the window.
Tarr and Hranitzky interrupt their routine twice with desperate attempts to relieve them of their futility and offer them with some sort of meaningful outlook on life, even a perspective as firmly cynical as the one presented by the neighbor (Mihály Kormos) who stops by for a refill of palinka and lingers long enough to share his disgust over the debasement of humanity at the hands of both man and God. The neighbor’s passionate and lengthy monologue is quickly and emphatically dismissed as rubbish by the cabman, his mind solely concerned with the physical tasks that require his tending every morning. Similarly, when a band of gypsies hand the driver’s daughter a heavy book of scriptures in exchange for water, she anxiously takes it back to her bed and reads it syllable by syllable, but her slow, invariable pace and monotone voice indicate her inability to absorb the anti-bibilical words as they pass through her lips.
The harsh banality of each day pummels the cabman and his daughter till they’ve both become as numb, expressionless, and simpleminded as the horse in their barn. The film’s title refers to them both as stubborn, tired, and powerless as the beaten horse; Tarr and Hranitzky effectively reassign Nietzsche’s crushing pity and despair from the equine to the driver, his daughter, and the countless others like them who exist more out of habit than with purpose. Though the filmmakers’ sorrow for these two tortured characters is palpable, they chooses not to grant them the salvation of a Nietzsche-like intervention, allowing life to systematically dismantle them until their point is proven.
The 49th New York Film festival runs from September 30 to October 16. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.