Monday, 22 October 2012

The Turin Horse/ A Torinói Ló (2011, Béla Tarr)

To describe The Turin Horse as a contemplative, stagnant, bleak, devastating piece of cinema seems perhaps not entirely redundant but truthfully a little patent in the face of a new film from Béla Tarr. It is indeed all these things and a fitting end to one of cinema's most uniquely pushing artists; A vision of humanity's end is shown in almost perverse starkness as we follow the day to day lives of a farmer, his daughter, and their horse.

If his 2000 offering Werckmeister Harmonies offered a partial, and arguable, exploration of Voltaire's infamous quote - "If God didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent him" - The Turin Horse explores the tragic end of another philosopher in Friedrich Nietzsche. Opening narration recites the remarkable story of Nietzsche who upon witnessing and intervening a stubborn horse's brutal flogging by its owner, lived the rest of his life essentially bed-ridden and mute. So many questions arise from this account; what about this incident led a great mind to disintegrate, to seemingly give up hope? Was the reality of the scene so horrific as to profoundly change this man in an instant, or was it the final push of a man already fighting an internal battle? Like the fate of the horse, we'll never know.

One can only take from the emphasis on this source inspiration that the horse and driver in Tarr's film are representations of the ones witnessed by Nietzsche, that the despairing apocalyptic world the characters find themselves in is the end of civilisation as envisaged by him, the disintegrating grapple with hope and faith in mankind made real through the decaying surroundings and relenting elements. The Turin Horse can certainly be read as a state of mind, as it can be read many ways.

Werckmeister Harmonies explored the 'need' for the idea of God and the desolation that follows the extermination of an ideological deity, what we get here is a further demonstration and a peek further down the line of where the previous film left off. As we follow the menial daily routine of the farmer and his daughter, the hazardous environment as well as outsider hints through philosophical ramblings certainly point towards an end of days scenario. God, if ever present, is certainly not anymore. The couple's daily lives are shown in painstaking detail, a rigorous approach to display so little as they dress, go about their chores, each eat a boiled potato, and sleep. Only to be repeated day in day out monotonously with depressing conviction. Nearing the end of the film as the couple's horse has withdrawn from his duty and is refusing to eat and drink, they go about their usual routine regardless even now living in darkness. They both stare at their raw potatoes and as the father begins to eat his, the daughter does not, he tells her that she must. The Turin Horse presents us with a need to live at whatever cost despite a clear lack of purpose to, this daily grind and hardship, this routine remaining unbroken, and for what? What drives us to keep going when all hope is lost? Inherent survival rationale? A chance at glory in the next life? One could argue for the latter if this picture wasn't so clearly set in a Godless landscape.

Typical of Béla Tarr's cinema The Turin Horse paints a bleak picture of life and a harrowing meditation of its worth and our purpose. It does however pose important poignant questions, as many as its opening story leads us to ask and with as little answers to follow.

All the hallmarks of Tarr's films are present; the gorgeous monochrome photography, the seemingly infinite long takes that take the viewer past a level of acceptance and into a hypnotized state of wonder, and Mihály Vig's deeply affecting music; a single piece that beckons the end, never letting up under its extensive use. All these elements combining to once again show us a vision of humanity in decline. Tarr's career has largely dealt with societal fallout and so
The Turin Horse is a fitting end to his work as we're brought to the seemingly bitter end of life, made present as the final strands are worn away.

Over the summer we've been shown the world under dire threat in countless blockbusters, with the heroes defending mankind's future as it hangs in the balance. Whether I've stomached all the apocalyptic suspense I can through over-saturation I don't know but The Turin Horse has delivered a scenario of uncompromising consequence. Here with a cast of few we're quite literally shown the decaying of a slowly extinguishing world, a refreshing counteraction to the blockbusters which shout loudly as everything could end yet ultimately showing no individual loss, no real consequence, nothing being truly at risk. Beyond the fireworks display these films offer we must ask why the creators expect us to invest in their story's predicament, to invest in their characters when nothing is actually at stake.

The Turin Horse grabbed me from its stunning opening and didn't relinquish its grip till the bitter end; How a horse has earned its place among the best performances of the year is a miracle as its scenes are the most heartbreaking I've ever witnessed, emotional without a shed of manipulation. It is a crowning jewel on the career of an artist we can only say goodbye to reluctantly, but Béla Tarr has delivered undoubtedly one of the finest films of the year as well as his own body of work. Therefore there must be thanks in our mourning of one of modern cinema's most distinguished voices, a true genius which his final film firmly lays claim to.

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