What makes a great film?
The idea occured to me towards the end of this lengthy, apparently final work of Bela Tarr, in the small cinema screen where I saw it on its one meagre day`s release, a dozen or so of us there to watch it weave its rare spell.
Well, is it the overlapping backchat of His Girl Friday; Wayne`s eyes of depthless rage in Red River; the shadowy doorways, delirious camera angles and suggestively empty squares of The Third Man; or perhaps it`s the ecstatic tree fighting and wall climbing in Crouching Tiger...or the deceptively simple fables of Eric Rohmer? Yes! Yes, all that and more. You just need to open yourself to the possibility that there might be some way of filming `life` that you haven`t seen yet - or at least not in such a way before.
This is my first exposure to Bela Tarr. I have been longing to see one of the Hungarian`s films since I heard they existed, especially having lived for two years in Budapest, and therefore interested in anything emanating from that strange and exasperating country. I sat engrossed and riveted, despite a two-and-a-half-hour running time, and its grudgingly unhurried pace. But if you are at all used to `slow` films (but what, after all, is a `slow film`...?) you will no doubt be as spellbound as I was by this stunningly beautiful black-and-white tale, whose impetus comes from a (true) anectote concerning the philosopher Nietzsche, who witnessed a horse being whipped, which appears to have brought on the breakdown that led to the insanity of his final years. After a voice-over telling us of this `backstory` - a voice-over which we hear once or twice again during the course of the film, and whose dramatic sense is the only element of such an innately visual film I would call into question - we see not very much of said horse and a great deal of its owners, a Mosaic man and his gaunt, dutiful daughter - played to perfection by Janos Derzsi and Erika Bok - just about ekeing out a livelihood in the seemingly permanently gale-torn Hungarian plains in the late nineteenth century.
However, the opening tracking shot - at least five minutes long, but totally compelling in its beauty and stark immediacy - shows the long-suffering horse hauling the one cart owned by the couple back to their spacious but sparsely furnished farm. These are some of the most moving images I have seen in any film - and, incidentally, reminded me a little of the wonderful horse sculptures of the American artist Deborah Butterfield.
But this is not in fact a film about horses, but rather concerns the harshness of rural life over a hundred years ago, and its - I was going to say its beauty. But that would be a patronising mistake, for it is the director who is making beauty out of degradation, out of near-squalor, just as Goya did, or Genet, or any number of socially aware artists, and indeed there is something almost Dickensian in the film`s relentless concentration on the lives of the downtrodden, though perhaps without Dickens` redeeming humour. There are flashes of humour here, but they flicker and die with the pair`s unreliable candles.
Watching this leisurely film, many questions came to mind, such as the anomaly concerning aesthetic beauty/artistry and real ugliness/suffering, but surely that is all to the good. To emerge from any film armed with questions can only ever be a boon rather than a burden.
There are many kinds of filmmaking, many types of film. This is one. I was enthralled by The Turin Horse, and hope it will be seen by at least as many as wish to see it.
A rare and humbling near-masterpiece.