Screens at CIFF: 10/13 & 10/15
World premiere: 15 February, 2011, Berlin Film Festival

It is with a curious sense of amused embarrassment that I welcome Tarr Béla, one of the most individualistic and incalculably important filmmakers currently alive, to the annals of this weblog with his final film, The Turin Horse. Allegedly, final, of course: no artist who draws breath and has the mental capacity to create can be absolutely trusted that what he calls his "final" work really and truly is, though Tarr has stuck to his story pretty consistently.

And even if he someday caves on this stance, the fact will remain that The Turin Horse feels awfully much like a final statement, tackling as it does one of the most definitive topics available to the storyteller: what happens at the end of humanity, and how the people left alive will deal with that fact.

Not that the film is post-apocalyptic in the conventional sense. Indeed, by all available evidence, it takes place around the turn of the 20th Century: over a completely black screen (though one rather spoilt by the bright white subtitles for those of us who don't speak Hungarian), a narrator recites the anecdote of the time in 1889 that Friedrich Nietzsche was in Turin, Italy, when he saw a coach-horse being brutally whipped; the philosopher ran over to shield the horse from the blows. This event was the beginning of his decade-long slide into total mental collapse.

The film began when Tarr asked writer Krasznahorkai László the innocent question, "What happened to the horse?" as far back as the 1980s, and perhaps this film answers it. Certainly, the moment the story ends, we see a horse, dragging a cart; but maybe it is not the same horse, for clearly we're not in or anywhere near Turin. Nor does his owner, upon returning home (to a homely little hovel, as you'd expect to see in the middle of nowhere in Europe around 1889), tell his daughter about the crazy Prussian who fell upon the horse, weeping. There is, however, a somewhat Nietzschean tenor to what we see; a feeling of emptiness and a slow cosmic death that is in keeping with the writer's famous pronouncement that God is dead, even if nothing within the film seems to hearken to anything specific within Nietzsche's writing, that I am familiar with.*

The Turin Horse depicts six days in the life of the horse, its owner (Derzsi János), and his daughter (Bók Erika). It's not a terribly fun life. They live in the middle of a dry plain, in the center of an apparently perpetual windstorm - you know in Macbeth, where they talk about the "blasted heath"? I never knew what that was supposed to mean, until this picture. It is the very model of a blasted heath: desolate and unforgiving and the very image of hell. Walking across their small plot of land to the enclosure where the horse lives, trying to make it eat, the two lonely humans are buffeted by a wall of screaming wind and noise; sometimes they go in and shut up all the windows and you can just hear the moan of the wind like a dying animal, constant but thankfully muted.

So it is, that these two individuals try their very damnedest to keep it together in the face of shrieking banshee wind and a horse that refuses to eat (and if the horse goes, that's pretty much the end of everything); and this is where we get to the point that The Turin Horse, as has nearly every Tarr film since he broke big in the mid-'90s with the legendarily austere Sátántangó, into two irreconcilable camps. On the one hand, you have the people who think it's deathly boring, and not without reason: it is long (a solid two-and-a-half hours; the stated running time is 146 minutes, but the print shown at the Chicago International Film Festival was longer), and nothing happens. Not "nothing". The old man eats a potato, every single day, and since his one arm is no good, he has to do it with one hand and it's quite a production.

On the other hand are the people like me who find the brutal slowness to be absolutely transfixing: who find, that is to say, the endless repetition of potato-eating to be the very heart and soul of cinema. Because the point of this is how repetitive these characters lives are, the same tiny collection of rituals that give form to their lives out on the edge of some cataclysm that seems to have devoured the rest of the universe: the one time they attempt leave, on the fifth day, they simply turn around, because why bother? And so we have those potatoes: the first time it's weird, and the third time it's boring, and the fifth time it's hypnotic, and the final time it is like the crack of God shutting closed the book of the world.

Allegedly, there are 30 shots in the whole movie; I wasn't counting, but that seems fair. As he did in Werckmeister Harmonies - a better film, but it is compared to most things - Tarr includes a number of crazily expressive tracking shots, this time courtesy of his three-time cinematographer Fred Kelemen, that loop around and slink back and forth and turn the matter of wandering around this cramped, dark house and the field of debris shooting through the wind like leaf-shaped bullets into a sick dance between the camera and the set. This ambitious scheme of camera movements serves to give the film a lot more visual variety than an average shot length of 4.9 minutes would necessarily suggest; and that's without bringing in Kelemen's drop-dead beautiful black and white images, the kind where any given frame is excellent enough to hang on your wall, or in a museum.

But yes, it is very long, and it is very light on events; for me, the film seemed to stop having a duration of time - I was legitimately unable even stab at how long shots or moments went on after the first day or so - and the slow movement through the character's very static and repetitive lives served only to increase the desperation of it all; attempting to maintain the normal in the face of that wind and that endless nowhere on every side. For other people, it's stultifying. And the thing is, I don't even know that Tarr is an acquired taste, so much as somebody you either like or you don't; and this is awfully typical of Tarr, even if it's a hair shy of his very best work, while being a gratifying improvement on the sometimes erratic The Man from London. Mesmerising, ghastly dull - they are value judgments and impossible to treat objectively, particular in a case like this. So let me say, in all subjectivity, that The Turin Horse was one of the finest and most sublimely harrowing depictions of the End Times that I have ever seen in a movie, and leave it at that.