An apocalyptic parable set in an isolated farmhouse, The Turin Horse might befuddle you and it might bore you. But I guarantee you won’t forget some of the images, and more likely than not you’ll be left pondering their potential meaning.
The movie chronicles the daily routines of an aging father (Janos Derzsi) and his adult daughter (Erika Bok) as they scrape together a meager life of subsistence: caring for their horse, chopping wood, boiling and eating two potatoes each day. Life has been made even more difficult by the relentless windstorm barrelling across their barren land, sending leaves swirling and dusting the sky into an indiscriminate gray (the film is shot in black and white).
We encounter the storm in the movie’s bravura opening sequence, an extended single take circling the farmer’s horse as it pulls him and his cart into the wind. Hungarian director Bela Tarr—working, as he did on Werckmeister Harmonies, with his wife, co-director, and editor Agnes Hranitzky—favors such audaciously lengthy and uninterrupted camera sequences. Once we make it to the farmhouse, the technique is used to capture mundane domestic activities in real time: the daughter helping her father dress; her fraught morning trip, wild wind whipping about, to the well; the two of them eating those potatoes (she delicately; he like a famished animal). You might think it’s not immediately engaging, but when the daughter hangs a sheet to dry in front of the camera, blocking the view, you’ll find yourself desperate to see what’s going on.
This is likely because of the gorgeous composition and camerawork—cinematographer Fred Kelemen works wonders moving indoors and out while delicately negotiating the shifts of light and dark—and because a foreboding sense of doom hangs over the entire film (Mihaly Vig’s recurring, brooding musical theme might have something to do with that). Sure enough, a neighbor stops by for some brandy and delivers a meandering rant about the world having fallen into a state of degradation because of “man’s own judgment over his own self, which of course God has a hand in, or dare I say: takes part in.” The farmer calls his speech “rubbish,” but soon their horse stops eating, the well dries up, and the storm begins to feel more like an end-days plague. (In its remote, end-of-the-world mysteriousness, The Turin Horse recalls Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice.)
What’s it all mean? The movie’s title comes from a story shared in voiceover at the start of the film, about Friedrich Nietzsche supposedly falling into despair over the mistreatment of a horse in Turin, Italy. Nietzsche famously claimed that God is dead, and that humanity must find meaning here on earth, within itself (his “superman” represented the pinnacle of such efforts). The Turin Horse certainly seems to depict a godless existence, while the father—who accepts each catastrophic setback with little more than a resigned cough—would seem to represent the opposite of a Nietzschean superman. Yet we’re never given any indication that he’s a sheep-like man of faith, so who knows? Your guess is probably better than mine.
What sticks with me, at the end of the day, is the movie’s stark beauty; one shot in particular, of the daughter leaning into the wind as she trudges toward the well, feels like a retort to the utter hopelessness we otherwise see. The Turin Horse austerely captures humanity’s basic struggle, while recognizing in that struggle a certain dignity—a dignity that, no matter its source, deserves the movie’s bleak but noble frame.