Edinburgh Film Festival 2011: THE TURIN HORSE

rating: 4.5

We are told, to begin with, that Frederick Nietzsche once saw a horse being beaten in Turin and threw his arms around its neck, before collapsing to the ground. This (possibly apocryphal) tale is reasonably well-known; afterwards Nietzsche barely spoke again for the remaining ten years of his life. But what, it is reasonable to ask, happened to the horse? Béla Tarr€™s deceptively simple new movie €“ it is widely reported to be his last €“ begins with this question. In Tarr€™s fictionalised version, he gives the horse to an old man who lives in a farmhouse with his daughter. There is too little evidence of vegetation to call it a €˜farm.€™ They live a simple existence: collecting water from the well, feeding the horse, eating a single boiled potato each (with their hands) every day. Outside, the wind howls constantly. Every time they leave the seclusion of their house they are almost physically battling the elements. A friend complained to me yesterday that a foreign film he€™d seen was so full of people looking out windows; heaven knows what he would have made of this movie, with long, beautifully composed shots of the pair looking out at God€™s creation. Or, perhaps, God is dead; the Nietzsche connection is more than a tenuous one. The movie is set almost entirely in and around the farmhouse; on the occasions where characters approach we see them in long-shots, the camera never wandering too far. There is a pervading sense of hopelessness; the man and his daughter continue repeating their daily routine, but gradually things are collapsing around them. The horse stops eating. The well runs dry. All is not well. Whether the movie thinks God or his absence is to blame for this is left entirely ambiguous, but there are certainly enough religious allusions to show the ambivalence. The two make an interesting juxtaposition with Adam and Eve; their Eden replaced with an unforgiving wasteland. The movie takes place over six days. However rather than describing creation, this is more like the six days of destruction. An apocalyptic pall hangs over everything. When another character appears to borrow some Palinka (Hungarian fruit brandy €“ thanks, Wikipedia) he has a speech that must be longer than all of the main two characters€™ dialogue combined. It concerns the predatory nature of man in a godless universe. The old man tells him to stop talking rubbish, maybe because he doesn€™t want to hear an explanation. Or maybe because there isn€™t one. Between everyone in this film is a lack of comprehension and empathy. The speech of the man who comes to get some booze is ignored by the central characters. When gypsies approach, they are treated with hostility. The man and his daughter do not seem to bring any joy to each other€™s life. He exercises a certain power over her; she clothes and feeds him, although this also suggests a degree of powerlessness. They don€™t understand why their lamp, which is full of oil, won€™t light. Or why the horse won€™t eat, or do what it€™s told. These are, in movie terms, uneventful lives, but Tarr makes them dramatic and even beautiful. The movie is, as is invariably said about anything he directs, not for everyone. Its nearly-two-and-a-half-hour running time will put many off. When you leave the cinema, if someone asks you what happens in it, you might find it tricky to answer. And yet I couldn€™t get it out of my head. Tarr brings his usual team to this picture: editor gnes Hranitzky, who co-directs, and composer Mihály Vig, whose haunting organ-based score is central, evoking European folk music but coupling it with something darker; it reminded me somewhat of Maurice Jarre€™s score for €œEyes Without A Face.€ The photographer, Fred Kelemen, does a great job of keeping the film, with its limited locations, visually interesting. This is a beautiful, meditative film that grows in the mind after you€™ve seen it. Many will find it unutterably dull. I have seen many unutterably dull movies at the Edinburgh Festival before: pretentious, vacuous arty nonsense. This film shall long outlive their memory. It isn€™t empty, but it may be about emptiness. It is like Nietzsche€™s abyss, gazing back into us as we try to unravel its mystery. Adam Whyte, our man in the Highlands is attending the Edinburgh Film Festival. Check out all his reviews HERE.
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I've been a film geek since childhood, and am yet to find a cure. Not an auteurist, but my favourite directors include Robert Altman, Ernst Lubitsch, Welles, Hitch and Kurosawa. I also love Powell & Pressburger movies, anything with Fred Astaire, Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn, the space-ballet of 2001, Ealing comedies, subversive genre cinema and that bit in The Producers with the fountain.