I just saw Tarr's latest (and probably last) movie at The Lincoln Film Center. The movie is much better than his "Man From London" and after "Satantango" it is his most daring work, and in many way it is the closest to the latter.
Out of all the movies he made, this one carries the simplest narrative (and one can argue maybe too simple): description of 6 days in the life of a poor farmer and his daughter. Stormy winds hit their old house and the stable where a horse is kept.
The film opens with a nice long tracking fluid shot where the camera sometimes comes too close to the horse from a low angle and at times it tracks the horse and the farmer from a distance. Day one starts, and the daily "rituals" are shown: getting water from the well, help the half-paralyzed man dress and undress, eating boiled potatoes...etc. Those acts are repeated daily, each day from a different camera perspective but with almost no variation in content. To describe the hard life they live, Tarr succeeds in creating horror from those mundane activities, there are few shots each morning when the father wakes up with a horrifying facial expression; it surpasses in effect any possible dialogue that the character can say. And add to this example many others that also work brilliantly: pealing the boiled potatoes and eating them every day with bare hands; even eating is torture for the characters. Very little words are spoken, but no dialogue is needed with Tarr strong images and actually almost all of what is said doesn't add to the narrative, including the voice-over narration (a la Satantango).
This movie has some of Tarr most haunting images: the mummified facial expression of the farmer that is shown every morning, eating potatoes (reminded me of Van Gogh's potato eaters), the final scene of the movie is a scene that lingers even after the light is out. None of those images are as strong as or as catalytic as the whale scene in W.Harmonies but the abundance/repetition of images in Turin Horse has a cumulative effect.
In Satantango Tarr manipulated time and memory by pushing the limit of cinema storytelling in a seven-hour-long movie, here he tried to achieve this "engraving" and "time condensing" effect with the persistence and repetition of his images. It works -to a lesser degree than Satantango- now I'm 6 hours after the screening and still left with clear visual memories of those six days the characters lived. It is very interesting how this movie does not need to any dialogue, one can watch this movie with no subtitles and still get the same experience.
Turin Horse is like Bergman's Passion and Shame, ominous things occur with no explanation but we know they're adding their weight on the character. In Turin Horse, we don't know why the horse stopped eating, why the well got dry...etc but we feel this ominous feel of entrapment and death. One very strong -and horrifying- image in Turin Horse is when the light went off, not only the gas light, but the actual day light in the middle of the day, that was done brilliantly with no visual or sound effects.
One of the negative things in the movie was the introduction, why did Tarr link this story to a time (1889), a place (Turin), and a historical figure (Nietzsche) ?? Actually one can argue that though this is mentioned in the first scene, there is nothing that states clearly that this the actual "turin horse"; what is said is "nobody knows" (see the first scene below). This relation to the Nietzsche incident can't be taken seriously unless Tarr is explaining why the latter went mad (him realizing the fate of the horse and its owners), this would be a long, and weak stretch. The other explanation is that being an absurd -and not that funny- joke. Had Tarr kept the time and place unrevealed (like in W. Harmonies) this would have added more depth to the narrative and the apocalyptic events (especially towards the end, when fire and light stop to exist) could have been attributed to the present or the future of mankind, as seen by Tarr.
Tarr uses his regulars, it's nice to see Estike, the troubled little girl from Satantango now as a grown up woman. Vig's simple 4-bar soundtrack also works beautifully as usual. Overall I wish I could say that this movie is as good as all the movie I mentioned (except the Man From London) but W. Harmonies, Bergman's Shame and Passion, and even Satantango had all more accomplished narratives.
However if this is really tarr's final work, it is far better than Bergman's Saraband and Tarkovsky's Sacrifice.