“Look, imagine this horse, if it was your whole life, your whole livelihood, and if your horse doesn’t work anymore, you die with the horse, because your life is gone and everything is over. These words: allegories, metaphors—it’s none of that. It’s just a simple horse.” — Béla Tarr
When dance critic and cinéaste Mindy Aloff e-mailed me she would be attending a press screening of it in New York, I asked her to let me know about this film. Tarr’s last film has become Mindy’s first experience with his work. Below, in a slightly edited version, are the comments that Mindy e-mailed me this morning.
Devastating. If A Torinói ló, from Hungary and four other countries,* weren’t a valedictory effort by someone who is obviously one of the masters of moviemaking today, I’d call it an insufferable masterpiece, too. Over its 2 ½-hour running time, it magnificently conveys in black and white the actions and feelings of a time a century ago—including, in several close-ups of a horse, animal feelings. The tonal subtleties between light and blackout darkness are extraordinary. So is the soundtrack—a great, great homage to Foley sound. Throughout the movie, a mammoth windstorm is going on. Whenever the front door is opened so the characters can go to the barn to look after the dying horse (enigmatically, she won’t eat; she just won’t), the wind roars like a blast furnace; in interior scenes, the wind sound is still omnipresent, just a little more remote. At the end, one moment of a jaw crunching tells us that the potatoes that the characters are eating—feeding on, would be more accurate—are raw; we know why they haven’t been cooked: the well has gone dry, and the fire has mysteriously gone out of the lamps and the stove; and, so, these people and their horse are doomed. We know this even before the sudden and permanent (the credit crawl comes on in silence) blackout in their rude house, even though it is morning. We know about the potatoes even before the entire earth is apocalyptically shuttered.
The film is by the spousal team of Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky; the script, by László Krasznahorkai and Tarr. (The film took the international critics’ prize at Berlin; Fred Kelemen won the cinematography prize at the Brothers Manaki International Film Festival.) The story, which takes place over five consecutive days, concerns a handsome old farmer, whose right arm (the result of a stroke) doesn’t work at all, and a young girl, who dresses and undresses him, cooks, launders, helps more than 50 per cent attending to the horse, and generally makes life possible in their remote stone house. We see the daily chores in excrutiating detail, every button buttoned, every bucket of water brought in from the well. They are, to this observer, riveting. Excrutiatingly painful—Tarr makes you really feel the oppressive regularity, almost unrelieved by joy or evident pleasure in existence. (I say “almost” because, from time to time, we hear, as if from another century or continent, a three-or-four-chord modal tune wheezing from a harmonium under the wind—the last, sorrowful fragment of beauty in this constricted world.**) During this or that day, there are visitors to the house: a band of Gypsies who simply take water from the well over the owners’ protestations and who try to get the girl to come with them “to America.” One man, in return for the water, presses a book into her hand. Later, she reads it, slowly sounding out the syllables: some sort of religious tract. On another day, a neighbor, clean-shaven, makes his way to the house to get more vodka (which the old man seems to produce and sell). This neighbor launches into a disquisition on the nonexistence of God that sounds an awful lot like Nietzsche speaking***; at the end, the old man, astonished, says simply, “That’s nonsense.” The visitor packs up his vodka and walks back into the windstorm. One day, the horse refuses to eat. The next day, it turns out that the well has run dry. The next day, even though the oil lamps are full of oil, the wicks just won’t take the fire. And the last day—a breakfast of raw potatoes, then, suddenly, complete darkness.
The camera occasionally advances for a close-up or pulls back to give a larger visual context to an action; but the movie is speeding internally and relentlessly into a Last End. It is something to see once—once that will last forever.
* France, Germany, Switzerland and the U.S.
** Mihály Vig scored the film.
*** The film is providing an imaginary account of the subsequent fate of the horse that Friedrich Nietzsche encountered while visiting Turin, Italy, in 1889. The horse was being whipped; trying to protect the animal from further blows, Nietzsche collapsed. For the remaining eleven years of his life, the German philosopher, mentally ill and bedridden, was mute.
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