It is rare to see movie walk outs; people will usually stick out rough films until the end because they willingly paid to be there. It is rarer still to see walk outs in an art house theater because the patrons typically have more experienced expectations on contemplative and metaphorical features. The Turin Horse will split audiences right down the middle. Some will be mesmerized with the incredibly long takes, crisp black and white cinematography, and the relentless but futile struggle of the characters. The other half of the audience will groan, comment to their neighbors, drop their head in the hands, and a few baffled theater-goers will just give up and leave.
The beginning monologue describes the alleged events which led to Friedrich Nietzsche’s mental collapse. He walks out of his house in Turin and witnesses a cabman whipping his horse for being disobedient. Nietzsche runs up to the horse, hugs it, and then spends his next 10 years in the care of his mother and sisters deep in mental illness. The film asks, “But what happened to the horse?” Nietzsche is not a character in The Turin Horse nor is it set in Italy; the majority of the time, you will only see an old man, his daughter, their obstinate horse, and their rural Hungarian farm house.
The opening scene is a single shot held for minutes with no interruptions. An old man, played by János Derzsi, rides on a cart pulled by a horse in a truly blinding wind storm. Dirt flies in his face and stings his eyes. The horse sometimes stumbles and trips as he is not whipped by the man on the cart, but by the wind trying to push him backwards. The camera watches them from the side, moves back behind some leafless trees, pushes all the way up until it almost brushes the horse’s nose and then repeats the process. All the while, a monotonous organ and string melody repeats itself as if it is a cadence for the distressed travelers.
Back at the farm, the man’s daughter, played by Erika Bók, meets him, separates the horse from the cart, and they then spend the next two and a half hours of the film taking care of the horse, fetching water, boiling potatoes, getting dressed and undressed, and then doing all of that again. There is precious little dialogue between anyone except when a neighbor drops by to borrow alcohol and wax philosophy, and when a band of gypsies briefly invade the family’s water supply.
The audience waits for something to happen, expects something to happen, and little by little begin to realize that what is happening is just everyday life. The director, Bela Tarr, says The Turin Horse is about the “heaviness of human life.” Life does seem particularly heavy for these two characters as they fumble about in the wind storm to get water, try to get the horse to eat, and carry out even the simplest chore. Tarr does not just glance over these chores either. After 146 minutes, the audience will know exactly who boils the potatoes, how each of them will eat them, where they hang their clothes, and how to hook the horse up to the cart. In 146 minutes of film, there are only 30 takes. In an era when most movie scenes may last for an average of seconds, the scenes in The Turin Horse average almost five long minutes each.
The description here sounds harsh, but I assure you it is accurate. Nonetheless, I was one of the audience members who were more mesmerized by the routine movements than exasperated. I will not recommend very many people go and sit through the movie, even though, with the same breath, I’ll warn them not to run away from it either. It is a very difficult film to sit through. I do not judge those who left the theater before the film was over, I understand their disbelief. However, when you consider that the director is slowly depicting characters get worn down and begin to give up, he succeeds in showing that everyday life is a struggle to fight against.
Surprisingly, The Turin Horse won the Jury Grand Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and is Hungary’s entry for the 2012 Best Foreign Film Oscar. Bela Tarr said publically it will be his last film, which leads me to wonder: Are these prizes and accolades actually for a film that tests one’s patience and preconceptions or to celebrate a retiring director?