Bela Tarr takes his followers back to “Satantango” — back to the dull monotony of rural peasant life, repeated in a series of slow, uneventful and characteristically color-bereft long takes — before the big fade to black in “The Turin Horse,” which folds an apocalyptically bleak statement about the futility of it all into what is reportedly the Magyar master’s last film. Though ripe for metaphorical interpretation, the slender setup, about the fate of a horse seen beaten in the streets, gives arthouse auds little to cling to, and will provide institutional and fest programmers a test-of-wills head-scratcher for their calendars.
In an unusually cutesy bit of opening narration, intoned with all the gravitas of a Lutheran church sermon, Tarr and longtime screenwriting collaborator Laszlo Krasznahorkai reference an apocryphal story dating back to 1889 in which Nietzsche witnessed a cabman abusing his disobedient horse in public. Moved by the incident, Nietzsche intervened, throwing his arms around the animal’s neck in sympathy. History tells of Nietzsche’s fate, but “of the horse we know nothing” — an oversight Tarr ostensibly seeks to rectify here.
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It is a false question, no more enlightening in the grand scheme of things than wondering what became of George Washington’s cherry tree; Tarr is not so much interested in the horse as he is in the carter and the conditions that provoked the man’s brutality. The Nietzschean story merely serves as entry into six days in the lives of cart driver Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi), his steed and the salt-of-the-earth granddaughter (Erika Bok) who shares his hovel.
The opening minutes, in which old Ohlsdorfer determinedly steers his world-weary beast through raging winds back home while cellos and similarly intense strings swarm on the soundtrack, are as action-packed as “The Turin Horse” gets. On the first day, all goes according to routine: Ohlsdorfer and his granddaughter stable the horse, store the cart and retire to their pre-electric house. With one lame arm, the man requires the young lady’s help in changing clothes, which she does before putting two potatoes on to boil. They eat, mashing the steaming meal with bare fingers, then retire to bed as night falls — filling an entire reel with four long shots, less static than it sounds, thanks to Tarr’s dynamic technique of following his characters via Steadicam.
Day two is similarly divided across a spare half-dozen or so compositions as the granddaughter rises and fetches water from the well. The man hitches the horse to the cart, but the stubborn animal refuses to move, and so they call it a day, retiring to the house to chop wood, eat potatoes and, in a slight departure from routine, briefly entertain a guest who stops by to collect a bottle of alcohol and share his end-is-nigh theories (the closest the film gets to Tarr’s relatively sublime “Werckmeister Harmonies”).
The next four days follow more or less the same pattern, though things seem increasingly dire as the horse refuses to eat or work. As water is fetched, potatoes are eaten and windows sit staring blankly on a windswept world, Tarr gives us ample time to muse about the subtext and intentions of his tale. Like Hiroshi Teshigahara’s life-changingly profound “The Woman in the Dunes” (in which a man is trapped in the Sisyphean cycle of shoveling sand for a lonely widow) by way of Bresson, Tarr’s tale seems to depict the meaning of life in a microcosm, though its intentions are far more oblique.
Who are the gypsies that ominously appear on the horizon to steal their water? And what of the “twist” that greets the granddaughter on the morning of the fourth day? “What is all this?” she asks, as the furnace, the gas lamps and even the sun go dark on day five. The answers are a mystery, but no detail, however mundane, is accidental in Tarr’s meticulously constructed allegory: The stranger’s rant, the woman’s religious reading — like Richard Dreyfuss’ pile of potatoes in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” it all means something.
As the premise itself concerns the many stories not being told (Nietzsche is nowhere to be found, for instance), it’s impossible to keep the mind from drifting to all the other narratives unfolding beyond the film’s sparse horizon. Still, for Tarr, this odd family may as well represent the world entire, Genesis and Revelation rolled into one. And who’s to say, it’s possible that if only Ohlsdorfer had the use of both arms, he would put aside the whip and embrace his horse as well.