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Film review: 'The Turin Horse'

“Mother, I am stupid.” These were allegedly German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s last words before plummeting into the dark abyss of madness. It is also the opening anecdote in Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s newest film, “The Turin Horse.”

Nietzsche muttered the despairing phrase shortly after returning from town, where he saw a horse being whipped and protectively threw his arms around it. This scene unfolded in Turin, Italy, and Tarr’s choice of Nietzsche’s final lucid statement as a jumping-off point is fitting — “The Turin Horse” is purported to be his final directorial effort.

The film chronicles six days in the lives of an elderly man, his daughter, and their horse. Like Nietzsche’s mind after the altercation in Turin, the world these three inhabit is rapidly decaying.

And like Nietzsche’s prose, the aesthetic Tarr creates in “The Turin Horse” is spare and harsh. The film is black and white, without dialogue for more than 20 minutes after the opening narration. The most memorable sound is the wind buffeting father and daughter relentlessly every time they leave their country home — punctuated by fleeting interludes of cello, violin, and organ.

There are only a handful of supporting characters. A neighbor shows up for brandy and pontificates about the human tendency to “debase” the world, cementing the feeling of hopelessness before retreating to the windswept landscape. Later, a band of gypsies appear. These ruffians personify the degradation the neighbor foretold, screaming, “The water is ours! The earth is ours,” when the father finally drives them away. The next day, the well dries up — proof that the life is bleeding out of this place.

During their six-day march into the depths of despair, the father and daughter keep a routine. Each morning, the daughter fetches water from the well, until it goes dry. Every evening, they dine on boiled potatoes, eating stiffly and without enjoyment. They also try to feed their horse, which no longer eats or drinks.

Through this ritual, Tarr aims to capture the monotony of the character’s daily lives. Unfortunately, he is too successful. Clocking in at around two and a half hours, “The Turin Horse” progresses at a glacial pace; the camera often lingers on single shot — a shirt on a clothesline, the back of the daughter’s head as she stares out a window — for minutes on end. This languid presentation of the same routine five to six times makes the movie almost impossible to watch.

In 1994, Tarr released “Satan’s Tango,” a seven-and-a-half-hour film, the length of which exemplifies the director’s utter disregard for the conventions of pop-culture film. This unwillingness to compromise makes “The Turin Horse” a gorgeous chore of a film, aimed at an audience so narrow one wonders if it exists at all.

The opening shot, an extended single take of the father riding in a carriage pulled by the horse, is masterful. The camera examines every angle of the scene, making the most technically difficult shots seem effortless.

This expertise is consistent throughout the film; in Tarr’s hands, the humblest shot of the two protagonists hunkered over their table becomes a moving tableau — more like a living painting than a movie scene.

Nietzsche’s last sane words are haunting because they feel hopeless — a heavy weight pressing down on the mind. Likewise, Tarr’s cinematic swansong ends in despondency. When the screen fades to black at the end, the real world seems darker than before.

“The Turin Horse” is playing now through April 26 at Northwest Film Forum.

The verdict: Despite incredible cinematography and a poignant message, repetitiveness and slow pacing make “The Turin Horse” inaccessible.

Reach reporter Joseph Sutton-Holcomb at arts@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @analogmelon

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