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The Turin Horse

The Turin Horse

Monday, 1pm at Liberty Theatre

Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short: Thomas Hobbes’ famous quotation describing life in the state of war of every man against every man might accurately describe the rural life portrayed in Béla Tarr’s ‘The Turin Horse’. And there’s two-and-a-half hours of it.

The film opens with a dark screen and a narrator relating the story of the incident in Turin, Italy in 1889 when Friedrich Nietzsche steps out of the door of No 6, Via Carlo Alberto. Nearby a driver is having difficulty with a stubborn horse and in frustration takes a whip to it. Nietzsche intervenes and then has a mental breakdown. He reclines on a divan for two days, mutters the obligatory last words and then lives for another ten years, gentle and demented, in the care of his mother and sisters.

Tarr’s film imagines the story of the horse and its owners.

Shot in black and white, the action unfolds to the sombre, discordant, repetitive phrasing of a deep-throated cello or the incessant howling of the wind. There is virtually no dialogue, and what little there is, is mainly monosyllabic, except for the philosophical ramblings of a loquacious neighbour in search of brandy.

The action apparently covers the six days following the Turin incident, though the landscape is not Italian, and throws into stark relief the emptiness of the lives of the disabled wagon driver and his adult daughter in their dilapidated house in a forlorn valley.

The film focuses on the minutiae of their mundane existence: dressing, fetching water, caring for the horse, eating the one boiled potato that makes up their daily sustenance. Each segment captures the same action from a different angle, reinforcing the idea of interminable drudgery. They are as much beasts of burden as the horse, carrying water, firewood, hay for the horse, stable droppings, wet laundry.

This monotony is interrupted by a brief visit from a chatty neighbour whose reflections presumably offer a commentary on the whole: it’s about man’s own judgment over his own self, and the disappearance of everything that is excellent, good and noble. A visit of some gypsies offers an ironic commentary on the value of learning and literature in such an environment, and the father and daughter’s lack of hospitality towards them marks the beginning of their spiral down into darkness.

The cinematography comprises striking chiaroscuro images, unbroken tracking shots of still lifes, careful compositions that counter pose a solitary figure against an enormous countryside. And through it all the wind howls.

Beautifully shot, the film is bleak, moves agonisingly slowly and is overly long. You will come away with a far greater appreciation for modern life.

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Published March 14, 2012 at 2:00 am (Updated March 14, 2012 at 8:48 am)

The Turin Horse

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