Turin Horse: Hungarian Bela Tarr’s Final Work

“The Turin Horse,” the final film from the Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr, is a black-and white historical epic that’s effective as a particular story as well as a universal allegory.

The movie sums up a distinguished career of an artist whose work is still little know in the U.S. MoMa and other film societies have shown some of his films, which are impressive in their aesthetics and meticulous attention to detail, but hold limited appeal to the lay public due to their unusual length, deliberate pacing, and other factors.

“The Turin Horse” was awarded the Silver Bear and FIPRESCI Prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 2011. It has been an official selection at the New York, Toronto, and the Telluride Film Festivals. Tarr has announced that “The Turin Horse” would be his final film.

The film’s exclusive Los Angeles engagement begins on March 2, 2012 at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

The tale begins on January 3, 1889 in Turin, Italy, when the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche steps out of the doorway of number six, Via Carlo Albert. Not far from him, a cab driver is having trouble with a stubborn horse. The horse refuses to move, whereupon the driver loses his patience and takes his whip to it. Nietzsche puts an end to the brutal scene, throwing his arms around the horse’s neck. After this incident, he lies motionless and silent for two days on a divan until he mutters the obligatory last words. He goes on to live for another ten years, silent and demented, cared for by his mother and sisters.

Meanwhile, in the countryside, the old cab driver Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi), whose right arm is lame, lives with his grown-up daughter and the overworked horse. The horse refuses to move, as the man and his daughter struggle through their daily schedule. Food and water grow scarce. Beggars and gypsies come to their door. The horse stops eating. Slowly, the apocalypse approaches.

Meticulously shot by Tarr in his renowned long takes and stylized black-and-white, “The Turin Horse” is masterfully directed, hitting the right emotional tones with some dazzling set-pieces.  Like all of Tarr’s films, “The Turin Horse” has a minimal plot, is almost silent, and is all about shifting moods and starkly austere yet beautiful and often harrowing tableaus.

“The Turin Horse” is a far better picture than Tarr’s previous work, “The Man from London,” a disappointing (looked unfinished?) film that which was shown at the 2007 Cannes Film Fest in competition.

Born in 1955, Béla Tarr grew up in Budapest, Hungary.  He began making amateur documentaries at the age of 16 and shot his 1977 feature debut Family Nest at the age of 22, made with non-professional actors in a stark, realist style. His work made a dramatic shift with his 1982 video adaptation of Macbeth which is comprised of only two shots.

In subsequent films, Tarr developed an aesthetic strategy revolving around extended shot lengths, most famously in 1994’s Sátántangó, his most influential work, in both the film and art worlds.

Though his body of work is small (less than a dozen films) and little seen outside festivals and the art circuit, Tarr has managed to establish himself as an idiosyncratic (and esoteric) filmmaker.