Friday, October 14, 2011

Film Review: The Turin Horse

"The Turin Horse" **** (out of ****)

One of the most anticipated films at the 47th annual Chicago International Film Festival, for me, was the Hungarian film directed by Bela Tarr, "The Turin Horse" (2011).

Bela Tarr is one of the great and perhaps one of the most uncompromising filmmakers to come out of Central & Eastern Europe. His work can be compared to Michelangelo Antonioni, Theo Angelopoulos or Andrei Tarkovsky. But, like any great artist he is unique. He has his own vision. And is not to be compared to someone else. However, in an effort to help you understand what to expect in one of his films, I've made the comparisons.

Tarr's films are known for long, unbroken camera shots. When I reviewed his film, "Satantango" (1994), his most popular work, I wrote Tarr's films are filled with moments other directors would put on the cutting room floor. What I mean by that is, Tarr will keep his camera on his subjects long after the "message" of the scene has been conveyed. His films are not so much about conventional narrative as they are about abstract ideas. Tarr's films are more about pace and tone and emotion. His work may in fact put you in a trance. It can have a hypnotic quality. The films are also shot in black & white, something Tarr has been doing since his film "Damnation" (Karhozat, 1988). And they are sparse on dialogue. Clearly from my description of his work, you may be able to sense he is not a mainstream director. His films are not for everyone. Strangely, in my opinion anyway, the screening last night for this film was filled with young male college age film students. I say strange because I was expecting an older, Hungarian audience. Not so.

The reason I was so eager to see this particular Tarr film, besides the fact I have seen all of his films and I take a certain pride watching his films, as I am Hungarian myself, had to do with Tarr has said this will be his final film. If he holds true to that, it shall be a major loss for world cinema. Tarr is a distinct voice. His lost in cinema will be felt by film lovers all over.

But what about "The Turin Horse"? Well, I can't tell you much about it. Not because I don't want to spoil anything for you, but, because this is one of those movies some audience members would describe as a film where "nothing happens". Any time you walk into a Bela Tarr screening expect a divided audience. I remember the last time I saw a Tarr film at the festival, "The Man From London" (A London Ferfi, 2007), it was a packed house but people did walk out. They sighed and complained. They left the theatre baffled. "The Turn Horse" was no different. I saw people walk out of the theatre and never return. I heard an elderly woman tell her companion, "I simply didn't like it."

The film revolves around Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi) and his daughter (Erika Bok, whom Tarr first introduced in his film "Satantango" and has casted her in films since). Ohlsdorfer, whose job is never quite made clear, drives a horse and carriage. The horse is sick and is unable to make the journey into the city. These characters live lonely, dull lives. They live in a deserted village. We do not see another house for miles. There is a terrible wind storm, the sound of blowing wind fills the soundtrack. The characters rarely speak to each other, they rarely have guest. Their existence follows a routine. They eat at the same time, dress and undress at the same time and only eat potatoes.

That is not going to sound interesting to a large number of viewers. But you have to understand Tarr is a different kind of storyteller. Tarr is revealing character traits. The film has ideas. Only, this is an intellectual exercise. I personally was involved throughout the film. My mind was constantly going. Trying to understand the significance of certain scenes, certain images. I have not been this actively involved in a Bela Tarr film since "Almanac of the Fall" (Oszi almanach, 1984). "The Turin Horse" is probably Tarr's best film since "Satantango".

One image which Tarr keeps going back to, time and again, is their eating ritual. When we first see them eat Tarr keeps the camera on Ohlsdorfer. It is a medium close-up. We see him peel the skin off the potato and practically devour it. Tarr never breaks away to show the daughter. Why show us a man eat? You know you're going to ask yourself that question. But, wait a minute. Tarr is revealing character traits here. Lets dissect this scene. First, lets start with the obvious. The man is hungry. He scarfs down that potato as if there is no tomorrow. We can see the steam coming out of the food. He blows on his hands and the potato consistently, yet, he never allows the food to cool off. What does this tell us? He has no patience. He'd rather burn his mouth then wait. Also revealed in this scene is he never speaks. His main focus is on the food. Most people take pleasure when they eat. They sit down, have a conversation and relish their meal. Not this man. Eating is not a pleasurable experience.

Tarr goes back to this scene four more times in the film. Each time taking a different approach. The next time he shows them eating it is the daughter who is our focus. She takes her time eating. She slowly peels the potato and waits for it to cool off. An immediate contrast to the father. This reveals much about her. She has assumed the role of caretaker. She helps her father dress, cooks and cleans. Never complains or talks back. She has accepted her role.

Another sequence Tarr devotes much time to is the daughter dressing the father. One of his arms is broken. He is unable to move it. As a result he requires assistance. These moments enforce the concept of the daily routine of their life. The daughter knows the drill. And again we have to notice the lack of communication between father and daughter. Not a "hello", "good morning" or even a "thank you" from the father.

Now, at this point readers have to be asking themselves what does any of this have to do with the movie as a whole? An hour into the film a guest arrives, Bernhard (Mihaly Kormos). He starts to complain to Ohlsdorfer how life is meaningless. Society manages to debase everything. Our existence is filled with nothing more than victory and defeat. Life has an order to it but it is of a mundane existence. There is even mention of God in this conversation as the character explains, God's hand only makes things worst. This I believe is the message of the film. Bernhard is the heart and soul of the film. The movie's conscience if you will. We are all living our lives in expectations to the role that has been designed for us. The daughter's job is to take care of her father. The horse serves the man. The man serves God.

The film has that old Hungarian communist mentality that all of life is meaningless. Nothing good will ever happen. And we must remember this message is coming from a director who made a movie called "Damnation". The bleakness of society has always been a constant theme in Tarr's work.

Watching "The Turin Horse" I couldn't help but feel this is Tarr's most "pure" film. Tarr is simply being Tarr. He is not even going to attempt to get us a narrative. A character to root for. A beginning, middle and end. He is just going to do what he wants. Engage us through his images.

If this truly turns out to be Tarr's last film, it is a fitting conclusion to his career. It is a film which captures everything Tarr has stood for. It is the work of a bold, confident filmmaker with a unique vision. Tarr is stamped all over this film. It remains my favorite film at the Chicago International Film Festival. An uncompromising masterpiece. The work of a visionairy.