Like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) was reviewed with generous skepticism earlier in this Silver Screen Streak movie challenge, Hungarian director Béla Tarr is one of the foremost practitioners of what is called "Slow Cinema;" that is, movies which intentionally linger on moments well past the time that a mainstream director would've yelled, "Cut!" It's an acquired taste that is popular at prestigious film festivals like Cannes. I can love it or hate it, depending on how it's used. While I found it tiresome in Weerasethakul's film this week, the way Tarr and co-director Ágnes Hranitzky use long quiet takes in The Turin Horse is pretty marvelous.
The fun trivia about The Turin Horse — if anything about it can be described as "fun" — is that there are only 30 shots in the entire 146-minute movie. Sure, that's 29 more than Russian Ark's single take, but considering that the average Hollywood movie has somewhere between 1000-1500 cuts squeezed into less than two hours, The Turin Horse is a real change of pace from mainstream cinema.
The not-so-fun part of The Turin Horse is the unrelenting visceral sense of hardship and gloom infusing every second of its long tracking shots, as it depicts an elderly father and his adult daughter in late-1800s Hungary, holed up inside their stone farmhouse while a week-long windstorm howls outside. With long unbroken takes drifting through the interior of their dark, bare home and out into the bright-but-blistering day, Tarr and Hranitzky capture the essential meanness of this rural pre-industrial existence. The work is rough, the routines are monotonous, and when stuck inside to escape the storm, there is little do other than stare out the one window, or, if the window seat is taken, stare into the darkness. It takes the patience of Slow Cinema to so evocatively capture the poetic endurance of these simple lives, and as Tarr and Hranitzky spend day after day of sameness with this threadbare family, they also reveals the silent grace with which father and daughter wordlessly cooperate to complete their thankless chores.
The length of The Turin Horse's shots is not all that's notable about them. The stark and crisp black-and-white photography by Fred Kelemen accentuates every hardship-carved wrinkle on the old man's face, every speck of debris whipping through the wind, every unhealthy blemish on the coat of that impossibly sad horse. and every last glimpse of light inside their spartan refuge from the elements. Kelemen's use of light and framing is impeccable. Just as important to The Turin Horse, which spends a good deal of its generous running time in substantial darkness, is sound, particularly the hints of human-like agony in the the ever-present wailing of the wind outside, and the futile looping of Mihály Víg's organ-led score.
Lest I make The Turin Horse sound unduly repetitious, there are subtle shifts, at first, in Tarr's and Hranitzky's depiction of the same daily tasks; and, then, after a few days, things start to get worse and worse. If you can imagine the mesmerizing claustrophobia of Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes (1964) but reinterpreted through the bleak spiritual agony of Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light (1963) or Hour of the Wolf (1968), that's about where Tarr and Hranitzky land with The Turin Horse. It's not fun, but it's slow in the best ways, and about as pure an injection of droning Nietzschean despair as cinema is likely to offer.