‘The Turin Horse’ turns time into a dirge

Opening today, 2 March 2012, at the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse 7, “The Turin Horse” is a 2011 Hungarian movie that takes the same approach as the French “The Artist” but with different results. “The Artist” which won a Best Picture Oscar was a black and white film that celebrated the joy of life and Hollywood with minimal sound and a lovely soundtrack that evoked tragedy that is eventually vanquished by comedy. “The Turin Horse” is also in black and white, but the soundtrack is the unforgiving howling of the wind and a repetitive funeral dirge.

If you’re feeling suicidal or the economy has you down, this will push you over the edge.

Directed by Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, it begins with by telling us about an incident in the Italian city of Turin. The great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche supposedly saw a horse being whipped in the Piazza Carlo Alberto in 1889 on a cold day in January and ran to protect the horse, throwing his arms around its neck. Two policemen responded. This was the beginning of his mental breakdown.

The incident as described in the movie is:

In Turin on 3rd January, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche steps out of the doorway of number six, Via Carlo Albert. Not far from him, the driver of a hansom cab is having trouble with a stubborn horse. Despite all his urging, the horse refuses to move, whereupon the driver loses his patience and takes his whip to it. Nietzsche comes up to the throng and puts an end to the brutal scene, throwing his arms around the horse’s neck, sobbing. His landlord takes him home, he lies motionless and silent for two days on a divan until he mutters the obligatory last words, and lives for another ten years, silent and demented, cared for by his mother and sisters. We do not know what happened to the horse.

Any time you’re dealing with Nietzsche, nihilism and the death of God, you don’t really expect the product to be cheery.

Tarr and Hranitzky are, as I would be, concerned with what happened to the horse. We follow the owner (János Derzsi)  and the horse (a roan with a bad haircut named Bernhard) back to their home–modest to the point of sterility and isolated to the point of despair. Here we meet the daughter (Ericka Bók) of the man. The man has a heavy beard and mustache and curling hair. All are grizzled and with none of the dapper curl of style. The daughter is pale faced and grim. Neither smile. Her hair is straight and unadorned.

In the days that follow, we do not return to the city. We stay in this hovel where the only passion is in the screaming winds that throw up dirt and leaves as if pleading with these two to see and enjoy this physical world. That never happens.

While the contrasting black and white in “The Artist” spoke of elegance and style. Here the deep blacks are solitude and the rich grays are the lack of relief from monotony.

Tarr commented that the theme of “The Turin Horse” is the “heaviness of human existence” and the mindless, joyless repetition of daily life is how Tarr conveys this message.

The monotony of their days is broken–by the cursed gypsies (the attitude of the daughter and the father) and a visitor. Yes, there is actual conversation, but the writers embrace minimalism. The visitor isn’t Nietzsche because by then he was a basket case. Instead, the writers consider this Nietzsche’s shadow, as if a specter reminding the father of his guilt or his 15-minutes of fame. From this person, the daughter receives a book, an anti-Bible that proclaims that both humans and some higher force are responsible for the destruction of the world.

The movie was filmed in Hungary with a house and stable specially built for the shoot which began in 2008 but was finished in 2010.  Although the film won a Jury Grand Prix Silver Bear and the Competition FIPRESCI Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, it did not make the final shortlist for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Oscars.

For those of us, who are not into Nietzsche (like my husband and myself) or who believe in God (myself), you might want to pass. To me, those gypsies with their spirited white horses and people who asked the daughter to join them seemed more like the promise of life, love and happiness rejected from fear. That was probably not the intent of the  Béla Tarr and László Krasznahorkai  when they wrote this.

Manohla Dargis of the New York Times called this “an auteurist triumph” but I’d call this wallowing in misery and accepting for a grim death before dying.

Remember there is another side of Hungarian life which celebrates life and embraces drinking (no thank you) and dancing (yes, please). Life is too short and you might feel that you’ve been cheated out of four hours of your life although the actual running time is 146 minutes (2 hours and 26 minutes).

In Hungarian with English subtitles.

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