Underviewed, Undervalued, Underground

Review: THE TURIN HORSE (Béla Tarr)

I am surely not the first to say that Béla Tarr is unrelentingly serious, and I will not be the last.  Not since Alexander Sokurov’s The Second Circle have I watched a movie that felt so much more like physical endurance than an active intellectual and emotional experience.  I’m sure this will lead many viewers to call it pretentious.  It is certainly repetitive, quiet, minimal, long and, perhaps most crucially, very, very somber.  It forces you into its rhythm sooner or later, but you never get comfortable with the tone.

The Turin Horse is a punishing film.  The people in it are ugly and often cruel.  Their lives are repetitive and arduous.  There is little plot, little action, little change of scenery, but there are plenty of long, long takes in which no words are spoken.   When a talkative neighbor drops by to borrow some liquor, his speech, rather than providing new interst, quickly becomes tedious.

The prelude tells the apochryphal story of Nietzsche throwing his arms around a brutally beaten coachman’s horse, then reminds us that we know what became of Niteszche after this episode but we don’t know whatever happened to the horse.  I think this encourages some viewers to interpret what happens in the film as a punishment, but I would argue that this context is mere pretense.  It is a red herring.

I hate to use the word “allegorical” because I assume people immediately start thinking of The Matrix or some such.  The Turin Horse is allegorical, but it is absolutely not The Matrix.  The difference between the two kinds of allegory represented by both films is that The Matrix relies on static and clunky symbols, whereas The Turin Horse is rooted in physical reality and concrete details.

Just because it is an allegory it does not necessarily follow that every image is part of code that must be cracked.  So I would caution against the symbolic interpretation i.e. the potato represent this, the horse represents that.  How does one make a movie about death, about the journey into death, without resorting to symbols?  We are talking about representing the unrepresentable.  It isn’t what the horse or the potato represents that matters so much as the texture of the horses coat or the rippling of its muscles, the photographic reality of the act of peeling and eating a single steaming potato.

A narrative needs an engine, but we must not mistake the engine for the whole machine.  As Andrei Tarkovsky, no doubt one of Tarr’s great teachers, often had to explain when asked about Stalker: it is not a metaphor, it is a specific journey undertaken by specific people, and they have to confront challenges and negotiate obstacles along the way. He suggests, in short, that Stalker is not a metaphor for life; it is life.  The difference isn’t an easy thing to get your head around,  but if you can The Turin Horse will make more sense.

–DJ

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