Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Masterpiece Test: The Turin Horse

Year of Release  2011
Country  Hungary
Length  146 min.
Director  Bela Tarr
Assistant Director  Agnes Hranitzky
Screenwriter  Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Bela Tarr
Cinematographer  Fred Kelemen
Editor   Agnes Hranitzky
Score  Mihaly Vig
Sound Recording  Janos Csaki, Csaba Eros, and Istvan Pergel
Sound Editor  Gabor ifj Erdelyi
Cast  Erika Bok, Janos Derzsi, Mihaly Kormos

Roger Ebert once famously declared that what a movie is about is less important than how it is about its subject.  There are few movies that demonstrate this paraphrased maxim more clearly than The Turin Horse, a film that remains riveting despite the fact that virtually nothing happens in it.  The information revealed about the few characters and their setting is so elemental that the film’s entire plot could be accurately captured in a wordless stick-figure flipbook.  A read-through of The Turin Horse’s script would probably be excruciatingly boring, but the work of art that was ultimately produced is mesmerizing, mysterious, and emotionally overpowering.
 Part of the reason that The Turin Horse remains compelling despite its utter lack of action is that the film shows so many parts of the main characters’ lives that more conventional movies leave out.  We are right there with the elderly farmer (Janos Derzsi) and his daughter (Erika Bok) as they go about their mundane and harsh daily chores.  Director Bela Tarr places an extreme emphasis on the duo’s hopeless struggle to go about their business during a brutal wind storm that lasts for the duration of the six days during which the film is set, and which doesn’t seem likely to stop after the credits roll.  Even a simple act like pulling water up from a well seems physically and psychologically draining under these circumstances, and Tarr and his collaborators don’t shy away from showing exactly how long it would take to perform such a task.  On a story level, The Turin Horse documents the struggles of two poor people in the simplest and most direct way possible, but Tarr’s unflinching, long-take style and carefully orchestrated sense of building dread make the film feel less like a work of minimalist neorealism than an epic vision of the apocalypse.

The Turin Horse has drawn a few comparisons to Chantal Akerman’s seminal minimalist film Jeanne Dielman (1975).  It’s true that both films feature an unusual emphasis on mundane daily activities, and both are built to a degree around repetition, but Akerman’s static compositions couldn’t be further from Tarr’s elaborate tracking shots.  The entire point of Jeanne Dielman seems to be to make the familiar activities of a housewife seem alien by offering a detached, practically unedited view of her daily actions, whereas The Turin Horse offers an enveloping sensory experience that makes the anguish of its protagonists almost physically palpable.  A number of filmmakers who have used the “aesthetic of boredom” lazily film scenes of their main characters performing mundane activities in a series of virtually silent, largely static shots meant to emphasize the alienation produced by the modern world, but The Turin Horse has a much more immediate impact.
 Indeed, it is rare to find a film that leaves as strong a sensory impression as The Turin Horse.  Outside of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966), I can’t think of another film where I’ve almost literally felt the weather that the characters are experiencing.  The events of the film feel practically as if they are really happening, which is all the more impressive considering that Tarr eschews any sort of conventional verite techniques in favor of a very carefully crafted illusory mise-en-scene.  The wind that engulfs the characters every time they step outside was likely created by large fans, or perhaps even low-flying helicopters, but the effect is completely convincing.  As with all of Tarr’s post-‘80s films, the sound is completely post-synched, though the connection between the sound effects and the visuals is utterly seamless.  On both an audio and visual level, The Turin Horse feels more real than real, which is perhaps why the film works simultaneously as an extremely simple story of a struggle for survival and as a mysterious, multi-layered fable.
 The Turin Horse remains intense from its opening scene to its last, because every small action that the protagonists take is treated, not unreasonably, as a life or death moment.  Even the film’s opening scene, a context-free but magnificent tracking shot of the farmer desperately whipping his ragged horse forward through the woods, conveys a strong sense of urgency and unease.  It isn’t exactly clear what the protagonists do for a living (they evidently use the horse to sell food in the distant, unseen town, but it’s never spelled out), but Tarr makes sure that the audience knows precisely how difficult it is for them to achieve even the smallest goal.  The film shows just enough to suggest the repetitive nature of the peasants lives to make the audience understand their daily routine – feed the horse, get water from the well, boil two potatoes that are then eaten joylessly with bare hands, sleep – without belaboring or repeating any of these events so often that the film ever becomes boring.  Perhaps this is why editor Agnes Hranitzky received an “assistant director” credit.  In a film with so few edits, every cut counts, and Hranitzky seems to have an innate sense of exactly how much the viewer needs to see of the characters’ actions, and how often we need to see them doing it.
 The editing is only one of the formal aspects of The Turin Horse that is handled with incredible precision and care.  Fred Kelemen’s extraordinarily crisp cinematography demands to be singled out for its incredible depth of focus, its wonderfully controlled chiaroscuro lighting, and the flawless execution of the film’s numerous complicated tracking shots.  (The aforementioned opening horse ride shot singlehandedly justifies the film’s existence).  Mihaly Vig’s repetitive organ-based score is the perfect soundtrack for the protagonists’ miserable lives.  And the sound mixing team deserves a lot of credit for making the film as grounded and visceral as it is.
 The Turin Horse is intimately focused on the slow disintegration of its main characters’ lives, so it is only appropriate that it feels like the end of an era for this particular style of film.  Uninterrupted black and white tracking shots achieved on film are rare these days, and with the increasing popularity of digital video (and the decreasing popularity of seeing films in a theatre), it seems unlikely that many upcoming filmmakers will continue the big canvas aesthetic of Andrei Tarkovsky, Miklos Jancso, and Bela Tarr. The Turin Horse is an ideal ending not just to the distinguished career of Bela Tarr, but to the era of traditional theatrical cinema.

The Turin Horse passes the Masterpiece Test

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