“The Turin Horse,” a slow and solemn black-and-white film set in a 19th-century wilderness and inspired by an anecdote involving Friedrich Nietzsche, displays Mr. Tarr’s uncompromising, atavistic commitment to darkness, difficulty and lapidary pictorial sublimity. The movie may also dispel any skepticism about the finality of his decision to abandon his vocation, since it is hard to imagine a more thorough and systematic statement of intellectual despair. Bela Tarr may be the happiest man in the universe, but the universe as he depicts it is a harsh and cruel place, indifferent if not actively hostile to the striving of human beings and other dumb animals.
I'm not going to bother reviewing Bela Tarr's masterpiece The Turin Horse since A.O. Scott does so nearly perfectly. But I will just add a few brief thoughts.
One of the stylistic hallmarks of the film, and of Tarr's work generally, is the long take. FN1 I am, to put it mildly, a fan of the long take. Two recent American works, Meek's Cutoff, which received a fair amount of critical press and was featured on many year-end best-of lists, and The Lonliest Planet, FN2 which is being released theatrically this spring, concern travelings across long distances and use long, wide shots to depict the beauty of the landscapes and the difficulty of the journeys. I liked both films, but their use of long takes merely scratches the tip of the precipice of the surface of Turin, which being composed of roughly 30 different shots over 2-and-a-half hours, is accordingly made up of shots that vary in length between long and interminable. What sets apart Turin's long takes, however, is not length or quantity, nor is it that they are mostly shot in tight as the actors move purposefully, albeit glacially, within the cramped house in which nearly all the "action" occurs, but rather it's the cumulative effect of showing the monotony, rituality, and resulting realism of the pain and struggle of being alive.
Meek's, and to a much lesser extent Lonliest, uses its long takes to elaborate on and stylize a very specific segment of the experience; e.g. long, drawn-out traveling shots cut to a set-up campsite with people milling about in unspoken despair over the precariousness of their situation. The actual work that goes into the camp set-up is completely ignored. La Ritual de lo habitual no existen. The film's emotion is created largely by the uncertainty in the story, will they make it to water or won't they, and the characters' responses to it. Tarr, far less sexily and through sheer force of will, creates feeling through the mundane drudgery of the routine but painstaking actions needed to simply stay alive: the daughter systematically undressing and dressing her father, the cooking and eating of boiled potatoes, the retrieving of water each morning, the shots of palinka to start the day. FN3 All of it is done without speech, emotion, or much consideration by the actors, but not only is each absolutely necessary for survival, they are inescapably, as the human condition is wont to be, brimming with a panoply of tenderness, bitterness, numbness, and acceptance. Everything but joy. The simple acts that Tarr shoots even more simply yet so convincingly (and repeatedly) convey more about the characters and their lives than any Sorkinian soliloquy about self-awareness, -hatred, or -congratulation ever could.
It is a painful, brutal film. Everyone should see it.
FN1 - I'm using "long" to mean "temporally long," and not in some fancy, technical photographical way.
FN2 - See The Lonliest Planet if you can; it is good. My friends claim I missed the whole point of the film. I claim it was all a set up by internal affairs. And that Gael Garcia Bernal is dreamy.
FN3 - My one real complaint is that there are no scenes depicting the characters relieving themselves. They get up in the morning and go straight to their tasks (she: dress, get water from well, dress dad, palinka, stable; he: look confused, get dressed by daughter, palinka, stable). You see them do basically everything it is that they do, but never once do you see them piss or shit. I know they were hard, but no one's that hard.