My kneejerk reaction to watching Béla Tarr's Berlinale winner The Turin Horse when it screened in the Masters sidebar at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was to recite the childhood jingle, "One potato, two potato, three potato, four." In essence, this summed up the film's narrative thrust. Then again, only Béla Tarr could exact such exquisite rhythm, resonance and weight—not from a childhood jingle at all—but from the following anecdotal wellspring:
"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."
The Turin Horse suggests that the horse's possible fate is a comparable world weariness and sickness of the soul. As Dimitri Eipedes synopsizes in his program notes for TIFF, the ailing horse has given up providing the livelihood on which an aging father (János Derzsi) and his daughter (Erika Bók) depend, as if sensing the inevitable. The horse "refuses to eat, drink or carry them where they need to go. Nevertheless, the man and his daughter forge ahead with their tasks, even after their one attempt to escape confirms there is nowhere left to go." Eipedes explains that Tarr, "has crafted a mostly dialogue-free meditation on how humans refuse to give up the fight even when there's no battle left to win" or what Robert Koehler describes—in his informative Cinema Scope interview with cinematographer Fred Kelemen—as an "absurdist essence, the will to go on despite all dire signs to the contrary."
The Turin Horse contests mythologist Joseph Campbell's assertion that it is through the performance of everyday tasks that one's brilliance shines through. Rather, it suggests that the weight of repetitious tasks extinguishes any form of brilliance. Only a master like Béla Tarr could render such weariness incandescent. Though Fred Kelemen's B&W cinematography seems less lustrous than Tarr's previous entry The Man From London—the whites less milky and the blacks less inky—the look of the film remains hauntingly beautiful, if dauntingly grey. Tarr's long takes, of course, are an acquired taste, if not a calculated exercise to frustrate spectatorial patience and, thereby, destabilize expectation. The Turin Horse sports—count 'em!—30 such long takes or as Kelemen describes in his conversation with Koehler: "The moving image is thus a thinking image."
The program capsule for the film's appearance in the Awards Buzz program at the upcoming 23rd edition of the Palm Springs International Film Festival—as Hungary's official submission for the foreign language category at the 84th Academy Awards®—suggests that Tarr's adamance that The Turin Horse will be his final film—"he plans to stay busy by opening a film school in Split, Croatia"—might account for the film's "sense of finality." Rarely has such a keen observation of the quotidian signaled an impending end to the world. Fortunately, the cancellation of the film's release after Tarr's well-publicized interview with the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel—wherein Tarr accused the Hungarian government of obstructing artists and intellectuals, in what he referred to as a "culture war" led by the cabinet of Viktor Orbán—appears to now be a sequestered memory.
Critical reception for The Turin Horse has been thoroughly aggregated by David Hudson at MUBI, first from the film's premiere at the 2011 Berlinale (where it won the Jury Grand Prix as well as the FIPRESCI prize for best film in Competition), the subsequent Der Tagesspiegel controversy, the film's appearance at the 2011 New York Film Festival, and two lovely pieces from that festival, first by Daniel Kasman on the film's "mesmeric viscosity" and next by Doug Dibbern on "tracking shots at the gates of dawn."