Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr announced prior to the premiere of A Torinoi Lo (aka The Turin Horse) that it would be his last movie, and that he was retiring from directing after completing this project. One would be tempted to read a certain amount into the picture after reading this statement, imagining that perhaps The Turin Horse is intended to be a final summation of what Tarr has had to say in his chosen medium over three and a half decades. But while stylistically The Turin Horse is a refinement of Tarr's trademark visual and narrative approach, thematically the true note of finality in the film doesn't concern art, but humanity. The Turin Horse is a tale of life that is grim, repetitive, and stripped of joy; it's a story in which people move forward because there's nowhere else to go, but the diminishing returns of each day become obvious to the audience as well as the characters, even as these people lack any option but to continue.
The Turin Horse begins with an anecdote concerning the German author and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who was staying in Turin, Italy, in 1889. One day, Nietzsche saw a man who was angry with his stubborn horse, which refused to pull a cart. The driver began whipping the horse, and Nietzsche, horrified by the vehemence of the attack, wrapped his arms around the horse to protect it. Nietzsche soon rushed home to his family in Germany, cried "mother, I'm stupid," and spent the final ten years of his life capable of little more than the most basic tasks. Tarr has suggested that The Turin Horse is meant to imagine what might have happened to that horse, but the director implies the connection without ever making it obvious. Instead, the story focuses on a nameless elderly man (Janos Derzsi) and his daughter (Erika Bok), who share a simple stone cottage on a barren plain caught in a windstorm that refuses to end. After returning home from a long, exhausting journey with his horse, which is clearly growing old and weak, the man (his right arm dangling lifelessly at his side) eats a spartan meal of boiled potatoes with his daughter (using their fingers rather than forks), and he goes to sleep. The next morning, the man rises, his daughter helps him dress, and after a shot of brandy he tries to hitch up the horse to leave. But the horse refuses to eat, drink, or leave the barn, so the man returns to the cottage, performing simple chores before eventually eating some more potatoes. With the exception of a visit from a neighbor who wants to buy some brandy and the appearance of a band of gypsies who want to water their horses, the old man and his daughter never see anyone else and rarely speak, living a life that is lonely and predictable, and their days play out like a grim, barren remake of Groundhog Day where the same things happen over and over, with the pair growing just a bit more desperate with each repetition. They finally attempt to leave their cottage when the well runs dry, but after a few minutes fighting the bitter wind and dust, it becomes sadly obvious they have no options other than to return home.
To describe it, The Turin Horse sounds like some sort of parody of an Eastern European art film, in which people rarely speak, the characters perform the same menial tasks over and over, and practically nothing of significance takes place over the course of two and a half hours. However, while that description is essentially accurate, it misses how curiously beautiful and moving this material can be in Tarr's hands. As is his custom, Tarr constructed The Turin Horse from long, uninterrupted takes in which the camera slowly and unobtrusively follows the actors as they go through their paces, and Tarr and cinematographer Fred Kelemen find a strange, stark beauty in the monochrome images of the stone cottage, its weathered furniture, and the dust and dried leaves swirling through the air. Janos Derzsi and Erika Bok deliver performances so simple they scarcely seem to be acting at all, but a lifetime of pain and disappointment can be read in their blank determination, and they feel like characters that know each other so well they feel no need to speak to one another. And as one day follows another just like it, with the constant roar of the wind accompanying Mihaly Vig's minimal score, an element of tragedy seeps into this story of a man and woman trying to find some semblance of purpose and dignity in a life in which both have faded away with the elements. Tarr -- who credits his longtime editor Agnes Hranitzky as co-director -- refuses to let his characters or the events of the film explain too much, but The Turin Horse seems less like a tale of ordinary folks dealing with bad luck and bad weather than a contemplation of how the apocalypse might have happened in another land and another time, and the last few minutes are quietly horrifying as the characters are taken to a place that neither they nor the audience can understand. In The Turin Horse, the end is much like the long days that preceded it, a whimper that never builds into a bang and is all the more painful for it. If this truly is Bela Tarr's final film, there's no arguing he bows out with something extraordinary that no other director could have imagined.