The best films I saw during my week at the Vancouver Film Festival were Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Béla Tarr’s incomparable The Turin Horse. Both ran two hours plus. The storytelling in the former unreels slowly, cumulatively, so mysteriously that if you don’t watch with intense concentration, you’ll miss moments when everything racks focus. The narrative in Tarr’s masterpiece is terrifyingly repetitive and monotonous, in the Beckettian sense, like a great engine grinding itself ever deeper into a hole, in circular slow motion that you fear might go on forever.
And, yes, each movie was mesmerizing, formally stunning in its exposure of the human condition. These are works that show us the skull beneath every skin, the darkness that threatens all our light, and the absurdity of our strivings to signify. I know what you’re saying: Why would I want to sit through such downers, deliberate excursions into angst and despair? My answer is always the same: How can you not? What would a thinking person do without artists like Tarr or Ceylan or Shakespeare or Goya who challenge futility and chaos by framing and composing every cause of existential hopelessness? Even nihilism can be shaped into story, made beautifully and truthfully subject to mind. Stories like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and The Turin Horse (count Lars von Trier’s Melancholia in this company) keep us alive and sane. Call them spiritual sustenance.
Sadly, long, challenging films like these will never garner larger auds after their festival showcases. That’s the tragedy of film as art, or art as film: the more it’s art, the less it will be seen. Both movies should have pride of place on any critic’s Ten Best List this year. But what would be the context for sharing such a list? Who would even recognize these titles?
The first framed image in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is seen through a dirty window pane: a blear of yellow light slowly resolves to show three comrades hunkered down for the night in a truckstop oasis, drinking, talking, laughing. Those are the stylistic elements that define the long pilgrimage that follows: darkness mitigated by camaraderie and revelations amid pools of golden light. This stylistic formalism recalls Howard Hawks, who brings his beleaguered communities into circles of light where friendship, music, and professional skill are often the only hedges against oblivion.
Beginning at dusk, the search for the corpse of one of those three happy men is heralded by a pair of headlights curving around a bend in a road, halting by a solitary tree standing in an island of Ceylan’s distinctive illumination. Three vehicles head deeper into the rolling Anatolian steppes, beautiful but inhospitable except for an occasional tree or stone fountain. (Ceylan’s beginnings in still photography are evident in one strikingly composed portrait of the Anatolian landscape after another, all handsomely photographed by Gokhan Tiryaki.)
The search is prolonged through the night because the killers can’t be sure where they are in the dark: where is that specific tree that marks the burial spot? Winding on and on through that preternaturally empty landscape, the caravan stops repeatedly to check on possible gravesites. Is this endless quest going nowhere? Tiredness and frustration wear us down, as well as the men riding in the cars: a young doctor (Muhammet Uzuner), a prosecutor (Taner Birsel), a blustery police chief (Yilmaz Erdogan), the two killers, a couple of gravediggers, and some local cops.
The passengers chat of this and that, the difficulty of quitting cigarettes, an ailing son, prostate problems, everyday signs and signals of mortality. At one stop, the prosecutor shares with the skeptical doctor the strange story of a woman who predicted the day of her own death. As the two experts in dark matters stand poised on the side of the road, their shadows fall, like doppelgängers, on yellow-lit trees and fallen leaves in the ravine below.
All of this seems ordinary on the surface, a way to pass the time, but as this strange, tedious drive toward a hole in the ground continues, Anatolia drifts out of the mundane into the mystical, invisibly morphing from police procedural into existential fairy tale. An apple suddenly drops from a tree, rolls downhill into a creek, then settles in a puddle with other rotting fruit. The prosecutor, carrying a guilty secret, goes out to pee near a rockface; thunder cracks and lightning illuminates him, stooped beneath what momentarily looks like the stony features of divine judgment.
Character is revealed, the way each man “lenses” the world: the hot-headed cop whose faith in human dignity and justice is shaken by the senseless murder; the skeptical young doctor, eschewing mystery for clarifying autopsy; the skirt-chasing prosecutor, a stickler for protocol, content not to plumb the puzzle of his wife’s death.
This long night’s journey recalls The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s collection of ribald and religious stories shared by Grim Reaper–fearing pilgrims on their way to a saint’s grave. Ceylan’s talkative Anatolian travelers take shelter in stations of golden light where aspects of why and how we live and what becomes of us afterwards are subtly illuminated. The most mysterious interlude comes at a small-town mayor’s home, where the corpse-hunters stop for food and drink. Over dinner, the mayor shares his dreams of building a morgue in which he could keep bodies from decay while far-flung relatives make their long way home. At that, a wild windstorm rises, electricity fails and the wayfarers are plunged into darkness.
In that witchy, wind-whipped dark, visions and transfigurations are loosed: a beautiful “angel” (the mayor’s daughter) materializes, baptizing each man in warm, yellow lamplight as she ritually serves tea; even a dead man participates in her communion. This soulful ceremony bookends that first scene in which three friends shared drink in an oasis of light, a circle, we’ve come to understand, eventually shattered by murder. From this Walpurgisnacht peak where boundaries between life and death blur, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia descends, leveling out in reality, the end of Ceylan’s magical mystery tour.
Ultimately, the murdered man’s body is discovered, guarded by a fierce black dog. At sight of hog-tied human meat, all manner of defense mechanisms come into play: black humor breaks out, the prosecutor preens at the notion he and the corpse bear a resemblance to Clark Gable. There’s hilarious quibbling over anatomical measurements a man crouched in the mud logs into his laptop, madness multiplied when the rigid corpse won’t fit into the boot. It’s Shakespearean low comedy, these self-comforting jokes, the eruption of human vanity, the slapstick recalcitrance of dead flesh.
The final images of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia are powerful beyond bearing. The young doctor, divorced and childless, gazes out a window, watching the murdered man’s wife and son walk away down a railroad track while, in left of frame, kids kick a soccer ball around on a playfield. Behind him, an autopsy assistant, profane butcher, noisily removes, weighs, describes all the parts that used to be a man.
You may experience Ceylan’s conclusion as an embrace of the human condition, cradle to grave, or as despair, framing the meaningless, ignoble end every mother’s child eventually faces. In any case, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia lights up its long night with everything that makes the human journey tragic and absurd, beautiful and profound. These are the fragments we shore against our ruin.
Béla Tarr claims The Turin Horse will be his last film. If it is, the Hungarian director marks his departure with a masterpiece that earns a certain place of honor in the pantheon of top-tier world art. This ferocious meditation on humankind and all its works possesses the kind of terrible beauty that rivets your gaze, even as you yearn to turn away from its unrelenting images of futility and despair.
In 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche, abroad in Turin, Italy, witnessed a horse beaten nearly to death. The German philosopher threw his arms around the poor beast’s neck to fend off further blows, then collapsed. Nietzsche soon went mad and stayed so until he died eleven years later. Tarr follows that abused animal home, to chronicle six days in the lives of its owners, a carter and his daughter, during which the world is essentially un-created and blacked out.
Think of The Turin Horse as visual poetry composed in hues of black, white and gray, its repetitions and incremental refrains as hypnotic and hallucinatory as a fever dream. Tarr’s goes after the hard truths of his fully imagined wasteland in long takes, tracking shots, pans and slow zooms. His camera hunts down and devours every component of the bare-bones chiaroscuro that constitutes existence and reality in his apocalyptic vision.
The “eyes” of a vehicle first transported us into Ceylan’s lonely steppes; here, it’s the dead-eyed horse from Turin that literally carries us, via an extended, unbearable tracking shot, to a bleak farm on a windswept Hungarian plain. We can’t escape the awful motion of the ruined animal’s head endlessly rising and falling, rising and falling, like some oil derrick pumping fuel into dying flesh. A haggard old man clutches the reins as the wagon moves through a dead black wood, drowning in mist. Is this Death driving a dark horse of the apocalypse, heading for a fateful appointment in Samarra?
At home, we watch the carter unharness the drooping horse and turn it into the barn. Inside, the old man (suggestive of Blake’s Titan devouring his offspring) is wordlessly and mechanically undressed by his gaunt-faced daughter, who then stares out a window while potatoes boil for dinner. “It’s ready,” she announces, and dad comes to the long, wooden table to stuff his meal in his mouth with his fingers, washing it down with a glass or two of palinka.
With the most minimal dialogue, many of these actions are repeated again and again, in real time, shot from multiple angles. Staying in motion, following even threadbare rituals, is all these two anti-pilgrims can do to stay alive. Every space in the primitive farmhouse, the ground between house and barn and house and well, is mapped. We come to know intimately the textures of wood, stone walls, clothing, food, faces, the weight of a bucket of water, the rich play of light and darkness; it’s as though Tarr means to define and document every bleakly voluptuous element of reality in this Beckettian couple’s no-exit environment.
On the sound track, strings saw away in a gratingly minor key; outside the wind whines and whips around the house without stop. The music, from man and nature, merges into one maddening wail of despair, death’s feather on the nerve.
The horse shuts down, refuses to eat even when the daughter begs it to drink, “for my sake.” Like Bartleby the Scrivener in Melville’s parable of despair, the dumb animal would prefer not to … live. When the barn door closes on the wretched creature, condemning it to die in darkness, you want to scream a protest: At least give it the solace of light!
The air grows heavier with some impending doom, though father and daughter continue to faithfully enact their mundane ceremonies. A neighbor drops in for some palinka and rails about the degradation of humanity, the centuries and centuries of corruption and cruelty, concluding that all is lost. The old man repudiates his nihilism as “rubbish,” as offensive as the jolly road-tripping philosophy of gypsies who stop for a drink of well-water.
But even the poor, starved magic of repetition and duration cannot survive the drying up of their well; they pack their goods on a little wagon pulled by the daughter and head for the hills. We watch—in real time—as they work their way up to and pass over the horizon, recalling Bergman’s silhouetted sinners at the end of The Seventh Seal. Has this dreadful vision reached its appointed end? No, for here they come back again, down the slope, to seek the dubious shelter of the farmhouse.
The woman’s gaunted face is framed in a window; the camera zooms slowly in on her visage, already that of a ghost. After all life-fueling rituals dead-end, as lamplight gutters and goes out, she cries in dumb anguish, “What is this darkness?” And that’s the crux of this great, heartbreaking work, the nature of the nothingness we resist with everything we are and do and create.
We’ve always hunkered down around our respective campfires, taking warmth and comfort from the light that keeps the encroaching darkness at bay. It’s screenlight that keeps me steady. Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse may be hard to watch, but it’s a source of profound illumination that will never fade to black.
Copyright © 2011 by Kathleen Murphy