As the 2011 Berlinale heads to the finish line, you could say that the underwhelming main competition has come down to a two-horse race, even if only one of those movies features an actual horse. In one corner, there is Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s Nader and Simin, A Separation, a searing marital drama from the director of About Elly, which won Berlin’s Silver Bear for best direction at the 2009 festival. In the other is Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s, The Turin Horse, a capital-A art movie (in the best sense) about an old farmer and his daughter waiting out what feels like the end of the world. Where Farhadi’s film is in color and features lots of talking and arguing and brilliant, impassioned acting, Tarr’s film is a 19th-century, black-and-white exercise in pure cinema that features two-and-a-half hours of some of the most remarkable shots ever created for a motion picture.
In a year when all eyes in Berlin were turned to Iran and the fate of condemned filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, Farhadi’s film concerns a legal proceeding that, at least at first, seems to carry much lower stakes for all involved. In a judge’s chambers, the film’s eponymous couple present their case for a divorce: After a long waiting period, Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) have finally been granted coveted visas to leave Iran for the United States, where Simin yearns to begin a new life and offer a better future to their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s own daughter). But Nader has decided that he doesn’t feel comfortable abandoning his elderly father, despite the fact that the old man is stricken with Alzheimer’s and can scarcely recognize his own son. “He is a good man,” Simin says of Nader to the judge, and yet we sense that what s broken between these people can not so easily be fixed.
As in About Elly, which concerned the disappearance of a young woman during a weekend reunion of college friends, Farhadi here once again uses a rather mundane starting point to spin a complex web of deception and other complications. Nader and Simin embark on a trial separation, Termeh staying behind with dad in a bid to bring her mother home quickly. To help with the care of his father, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a pregnant, deeply religious woman who takes the job unbeknownst to her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), an out-of-work cobbler. Almost immediately, there are complications—Razieh complains that the pay is too little and the commute too far. Then, one day, Nader returns home to find that no trace of Razieh, save for the scarf she has used to tie his father to the bed, which has not prevented the old man from falling out of it. When Razieh finally returns, Nader quarrels violently with her and literally pushes her out of the apartment. Pay close attention to that scene—and those that precede it—for Farhadi is exceptionally clever at what he does and doesn’t show you, and from which perspective you see particular actions.
And just like that, we find ourselves in the world of 12 Angry Men and Rashomon— those two iconic exercises in the subjective nature of what we call “truth.” Razieh ends up in the hospital, where she loses her baby—the result, she claims, of falling on Nader’s stairs after he pushed her. And given the advanced term of the baby, under Iranian law murder charges are brought against Nader. He, in turn, files his own complaint against Razieh for tying his father to the bed, which only further enrages Hodjat, who has the dangerous glint in his eye of men who feel they have nothing left to lose.
We are also very much in the domain of Jean Renoir and his immortal dictum that “The real hell of life is everyone has his reasons.” For two hours, Nader and Simin keeps shifting the film’s moral center, first aligning our sympathies with one character, then another, then ever so nimbly shifting the ground under our feet until we have nowhere left to turn, except to young Termeh, blessed with the unblemished moral compass of youth. And like Renior, too, Farhadi is remarkably attune to the way social status influences behavior—the blind arrogance of the bourgeoisie, the self-righteousness of the working class.
In the ever fickle world of international film festivals community, Iran enjoyed a moment from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s when filmmakers like Abbas Kiraostami, Majid Majidi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf were the belles of the proverbial ball, feted from sea to sea before ceding the stage to newer “new waves” from the likes of Argentina, Romania and South Korea. Now, Iranian cinema is once again in the spotlight, for less celebratory reasons, but Farhadi’s films are a reminder that vital work is still being done in the country and deserves to be celebrated.
The Turin Horse begins with a narrator recounting an episode from the life of Friedrich Nietzsche, who, on a January morning in 1889, supposedly stepped from his doorway in Turin (where he often wintered) and tearfully flung his arms around the neck of an exhausted carriage horse he witnessed being savagely whipped by its driver. Nietzsche, we are told, then uttered his last known words before going on to live the last decade of his life in silence and madness. “Of the horse,” the voice concludes, “we know nothing.” Tarr’s film picks up from there, depicting six days in the lives of the driver, his daughter and the horse, while something apocalyptic stirs in the air outside—literally, in the form of an epic and seemingly endless wind storm.
The opening shot, alone worth the price of admission, tracks the old man and the horse as they trudge home in the face of the oncoming storm, the camera moving alongside them, then in front, then below, all the while the wind and dust blow and the dirge-like strings of Tarr’s “permanent composer” (per the press notes), Mihály Vig, swell furiously on the soundtrack. In some ways, the man resembles the horse and vice-versa, weary, obstinate, starting to wind down, rallying against the dying of the light. I did not time the shot (apologies to David Bordwell, with whom I once shared the stage at a panel discussion of Tarr's films in Chicago), but my guess is that it goes on for the better part of 10 minutes—and one does not wish it to be any shorter.
From there, the old man and his daughter batten down the hatches. She helps him to change into his house clothes, and we see that while this may not be the most loving father-daughter relationship in movies, it is a functional one, driven by the harsh realities of the life they share, or of life in general. They eat a dinner of boiled potatoes—one of several we will watch them consume. Around the 20-minute mark, they speak the film’s first lines of dialogue, but just as soon retreat back into quiet. We do not need words, though, for as in the silent masterworks that Tarr’s film so strongly echoes, everything is there in the faces—faces as sharply etched by Tarr and his genius cameraman Fred Keleman as those in old daguerreotypes, and in the early films of Griffith and Dreyer.
And so the days pass and the storm rages. Eventually, a neighbor comes to say that “the town,” wherever that is, has been destroyed, “blown away” in a “perfect victory” of avarice over nobility. Once again, the particulars aren’t important, because the story the neighbor tells is the story of mankind throughout recorded history. Or, as the neighbor puts it, “To touch, debase and acquire—it’s been going on like this for centuries.” Some (and there are not so many) familiar enough with Tarr’s work to have an educated opinion about it may suggest that the director, who has fashioned several previous end-of-humanity sagas (Sátántangó, Werckmeister Harmonies) in collaboration with the screenwriter/novelist László Krasznahorkai and co-director/editor/”permanent associate” Ágnes Hranitzky, isn’t breaking any new ground here, and they would not be wrong to say so. But I’m not at all sure that newness should be demanded or even desired when a filmmaker has reached this level of poetic intensity in his work. Each sequence in The Turin Horse is more ravishing than the next, as Tarr creates his signature ballets of movement between actors and camera, a series of tableaux vivants that encapsulate, as eloquently as Tarr ever has, the fundamental despair of the human condition.
Tarr has been directing films for more than 30 years now, has been hailed as a visionary by the likes of Susan Sontag, Jim Jarmusch and Gus Van Sant, has been the subject of retrospectives at MoMA and other important museums, and yet has only recently begun to penetrate the defenses of North American art-film distribution. (Werckmeister Harmonies received the smallest of limited releases in 2001; The Man From London, Tarr’s lone movie made with “international” stars, a slightly larger one in 2008.) Now he has made a film that is both one of his best and also perhaps the most acutely concentrated expression of his aesthetic (which may, in turn, open the film to a larger audience). It also, undeniably, feels like the end of something—if not of Tarr’s filmmaking career (as he hints in the film’s press kit), then at least of a certain tradition of 20th century European modernism, of which Tarr has been one of the last dedicated exponents. Nietzsche would have loved it, and wept.
Scott Foundas is the Associate Program Director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and a Contributing Editor at Film Comment magazine.