There are movies that feature difficult lives shrouded in adversity. There are movies that feature good people struggling through hard times. Then there is The Turin Horse, a movie that portrays lives that are not just difficult, but lives rooted in an existential despair so profound it’s difficult to watch.
That’s not to say one shouldn’t watch The Turin Horse. One should. For all its bleakness and repetition and mounting dread, it’s also beautiful and controlled. There’s nothing else out there quite like it.
The film opens with an anecdote, probably apocryphal, told in voiceover. Friedrich Nietzsche left his home in Turin, Italy, and saw a cabman beating a horse. Nietzsche, sobbing at the sight, threw his arms around the horse’s neck and saved it. Then Nietzsche went mad.
“So what happened to the horse?” asks the narrator. No one knows. When the action picks up, we see an old cabman driving a horse—not the one Nietzsche saved—through a barren countryside. Both are harried by gale-force winds that make it near impossible to see or move. The cabman (János Derzsi) arrives home and with the help of his adult daughter (Erika Bók), puts the horse and cab into their barn.
The rest of the action—and “action” is used advisedly—takes place over the next six days as life gets slowly gets worse. It’s not the sort of worse that is easily quantifiable. There are no deaths in the family or robberies or harms against the cabman or his daughter. The “worse” here is life itself, repetitive, thankless, dull and soul crushing.
The cabman’s right arm is paralyzed, so his daughter does much of the heavy labor required for them to live, including going to the well each morning in the terrible wind, keeping the fire in the home burning and cooking meals—which consist of one boiled potato each—for them to eat. Father chops wood with one arm.
The day-to-day drudgery is interrupted twice. One day a neighbor comes over to purchase brandy from them and deliver an eight-minute rant about the bankrupting of our human souls. Another day gypsies stop by and steal water from the well outside the house.
These long days of backbreaking work are filmed in long, expertly composed and executed tracking shots. The unbroken takes—there are 30 shots in the movie—highlight the repetition of the tasks. The camera work isn’t flashy, either, but does show the unrelenting grind of a hard life. The only glimmer of hope comes from the mare, who, despite her increasing unwillingness to eat, remains a surprisingly sentimental presence as darkness literally closes in on the man and his daughter.
Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr says The Turin Horse is his last film, and it’s a good one to go out on. There aren’t many movies out there telling stories of existential crisis; Krzysztof Kieślowski is long gone. Besides, after putting together a movie that shows what may be the apocalypse, where does one go next?
The Turin Horse
Directed by Bela Tarr
With János Derzsi and Erika Bók