Judge Gordon Sullivan fell off his Turin horse, but got up and rode again.
"Of the horse, we know nothing."
Were my review to do justice to Béla Tarr's The Turin Horse, its length would dwarf War and Peace. It would have to be a catalog of each second of the film's two hours and twenty-six minutes and my extreme reactions, from ecstasy and boredom. Even then, the review would risk missing so much of The Turin Horse—the way grain plays with light and shadow, or the way the wind becomes so constant it is both comforting and horrifying. Not even biography would come to the rescue. Sure this is one of only a handful of Béla Tarr's feature films and, he claims, his last, but even these few facts pale under the sheer weight of the film.
What is most maddening is that The Turin Horse is easy to describe: the entire "plot" revolves around a father, his daughter, and the horse they keep on a small, windswept farm outside of Turin. They wake up, she dresses him, they eat potatoes. That's pretty much it. Sure, some people attempt to visit, but their presences are more allegorical (think The Seventh Seal) than narrative. A voiceover tells us that the horse of the title is the famous horse that Frederich Nietzsche saw being beaten, the one he embraced before going mad and spending the rest of his days under care. Even that offers little, aside from the too-easy temptation to read everything in the films in Nietzschian terms.
What, then, to write about such a baffling film? First, it's easy: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Chances are if you haven't already heard of The Turin Horse or Béla Tarr, then you could (and maybe should) live your life without this movie. I don't say that to sound like a snob; no, this movie is just so far outside of mainstream expectations regarding movies that if you're not already traveling in those circles then this is probably not the film to convert you. If, on the other hand, you're one of the few people who thought Terrence Malick's Tree of Life moved a bit too quickly and was too easy to understand, The Turin Horse may be the kind of film for you.
Though it is usually customary to evaluate the film proper before addressing the specifics of a release, it is worth lingering here on the extras included with The Turin Horse (Blu-ray). The extras include a booklet with an essay by critic J. Hoberman, an audio commentary by critic Jonanthan Rosenbaum, an early Béla Tarr short, a 50-minute press conference with the cast and crew, and an 80-minute Q&A with Tarr at the Walker Art Center. These extras are all excellent, providing insight into the film and how it was made. More importantly, they provide context for a film that desperately needs it. Without any context, I doubt most viewers would make it until the film's first line of dialogue (which is 20 minutes into the film). Also, while other films benefit from critical postmortems (see, for instance, pretty much every Criterion release), The Turin Horse demands such attention. Love the film or hate it, without some kind of discussion to process the film, it remains almost meaningless. Without someone putting ideas forth that viewers can agree or disagree with, The Turin Horse remains a total mystery.
Let us say, for the sake of argument, that someone did want to see The Turin Horse (an idea I wholeheartedly endorse for the adventurous viewer). What can that person expect? Basically, they will get thirty shots in two hours and twenty-three minutes. Each of those thirty shots will be a masterful short film in itself. The supple camera moves often, framing the actors with light and shadow, drawing them out of the wind-burned landscape. Details—like hands scraping the skin of a potato—will emerge, and some of them will strike with a breathtaking beauty, while others will reveal the sheer weight of our existence.
I won't even pretend to know what the film means; Tarr claims it's about the "the unbearable heaviness of being." I don't disagree—Tarr makes basic survival seem like a Herculean task—but beyond that, I don't know what to take away from the film.
Though the film is sure to be polarizing with viewers, I think everyone can agree that The Turin Horse (Blu-ray) looks perfect. The 1.66:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is replete with all kinds of fine detail, and the black-and-white cinematography maintains perfect contrast throughout. Black levels are deep and detailed, and grain is handled wonderfully, looking remarkably filmlike. The DTS-HD 2.0 track is equally impressive. There's good stereo separation in the Hungarian dialogue, and the wind is a constant presence throughout. Even the strange, hypnotic score sounds remarkably detailed.
For those who caught Tarr's last film on the festival circuit (or enjoyed his seven-hour epic Satantango), this Blu-ray is easy to recommend. The picture and sound are essentially perfect, and the extras add both context from critics and Tarr himself. For adventurous viewers looking to push their personal cinematic boundaries, The Turin Horse would be a fine disc to rent. At 143 minutes, it takes a dedicated evening of viewing to get through, but those willing to take the plunge will be rewarded with some of the best black-and-white images of the twenty-first century. Those who spend more time at the multiplex than the art house would probably do best to avoid The Turin Horse. With next to no plot, a funereal pace, and nothing to latch onto aside from the black-and-white cinematography, it's likely to be a hard slog to viewers unaccustomed to such cinematic offerings.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinema Guild
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