"THE TURIN HORSE" — ★★★ — Janos Derzsi, Erika Bok, Mihaly Kormos; not rated; in Hungarian with English subtitles; Tower
Starkly beautiful and exceedingly demanding, "The Turin Horse," which Hungarian master Bela Tarr has said will be his last film, is both easy and impossible to define.
It spins off the Nietzsche mythology that has the philosopher-poet throwing himself on a horse being whipped in the street not far from his doorway in 1889. Nietzsche would spend his remaining years in mental collapse. But what of the horse? asks Tarr.
The director, whose portraits of the Hungarian poor can seem etched out of tears, does not offer simple answers to that question or any other. What he does give us in "The Turin Horse" is a treatise on human existence at its most elemental, and in that he could not have been more eloquent. This, however, is not a film for everyone, taking its time as stubbornly and as deliberately as the horse that got the whipping.
The horse that starts it all is a classic beast of burden, a plodding dray of motley color that probably has never seen better days. Indeed, the idea that there are no better days for horse or humans in this life will shape the film.
That is certainly the case for Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi), a farmer, and his daughter (Erika Bok), who live in an isolated cottage where the daily routines unfold with barely a word passed between them: eating the boiled potato that is their daily meal, the daughter helping dress the father, one side of his body weakened by a stroke, or so we assume. Tarr leaves you to draw your own conclusions from the circumstances he lays out.
Black and white and nearly silent except for a raging windstorm and a few philosophical bursts from a neighbor (Mihaly Kormos) who stops by to replenish his bottle of brandy, this is a story of hard times that unfolds with ever deepening resignation. The question that hangs over each day is whither the horse — will she pull the wagon today, will she eat, will she drink, will she die? Ohlsdorfer and his daughter simply care for her as they have always done. And wait. Like everything else, the fate of the horse is out of their hands.
As Tarr is wont to do, not much time elapses, here just a few days. But it is the detail of those days that informs and provokes, for it is impossible not to feel strongly about the director's work. It's best to just give into the undertow and let the images and the emotions he stirs so powerfully carry you away. As this hardscrabble family already knows, to fight is pointless.
By the time the filmmaker is through, whether you emerge into sunshine, or rain, it's hard not to feel a kind of exhilaration and relief. Whatever father, daughter and the Turin horse face, at least it's their fate, not yours.
"The Turin Horse" is not rated; running time: 146 minutes.