Ab­sorb­ing look at Turk­ish lives

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews - David Strat­ton

THERE was a time devo­tees of se­ri­ous cin­ema could rely on a hand­ful of cel­e­brated direc­tors to come up with an im­por­tant new film each year. No­body re­ally in­ter­ested in the best that cin­ema had to of­fer could af­ford to miss the new Fed­erico Fellini, the new Ing­mar Bergman, the new Vis­conti, An­to­nioni or Truf­faut. None of those direc­tors is with us any longer, and their suc­ces­sors, for the most part, have failed to sus­tain the qual­ity of in­ter­na­tional for­eign lan­guage cin­ema.

The ex­cep­tion is Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Cey­lan, who first came to at­ten­tion on the film-fes­ti­val cir­cuit with his de­but, The Town (1997), and who with his sub­se­quent work has ex­plored the hu­man con­di­tion with Bergman-like pre­ci­sion and in­sight in film after film: Clouds of May (1999), Dis­tant (2002), Cli­mates (2006), Three Mon­keys (2008), Once Upon a Time in Ana­to­lia (2011) and now this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or win­ner,

Un­like Dis­tant and Ana­to­lia, which fo­cused on mainly male char­ac­ters, the new film ex­plores the lives of a gallery of char­ac­ters, male and fe­male, with ex­cep­tional in­sight and pen­e­trat­ing in­tel­li­gence. Though the peo­ple we meet in the film are from a spe­cific part of Turkey’s hin­ter­land (the Cap­pado­cian re­gion of Ana­to­lia), they are univer­sal in the con­cerns and chal­lenges that face them. Although it’s im­pos­si­ble not to be re­minded of Bergman’s riv­et­ing fam­ily dra­mas while watch­ing the film, Cey­lan cites Chekhov as one of his prin­ci­pal in­flu­ences. In the end, though, the bot­tom line is that this beau­ti­ful, ut­terly ab­sorb­ing and in the best sense chal­leng­ing film is in­deed a mag­num opus and, as one critic has sug­gested, the least bor­ing 196-minute movie made.

For the tourist, Cap­pado­cia, with its rocky ter­rain and houses spec­tac­u­larly built into the cliffs, is won­drous to be­hold, but for the res­i­dents there are the same prob­lems that are found ev­ery­where. There’s a con­sid­er­able amount of poverty and at the same time re­sent­ment to­wards the man who owns most of the prop­erty in this par­tic­u­lar area and who has the rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing a harsh land­lord. This is the film’s cen­tral character, Aydin (Haluk Bil­giner), who in­her­ited the land and the build­ings.

A well-ed­u­cated but re­mote character, Aydin is a for­mer ac­tor, and it seems clear that some of his bit­ter­ness stems from the fact his ca­reer has fiz­zled out, leav­ing him in this back­wa­ter. Not that he doesn’t en­joy the creature com­forts: he lives in the Ho­tel Othello, which he owns, and has the com­pan­ion­ship of Ni­hal (Melisa Sozen), his much younger wife. He’s in the process of writ­ing a book on the his­tory of Turk­ish the­atre, though he seems to be mak­ing slow progress; and there isn’t a great deal else to oc­cupy his time be­cause in the win­ter tourists are few and far be­tween.

The film minutely ex­plores the world of Aydin and the peo­ple around him. Th­ese in­clude his man­ager, Hi­dayet (Ay­berk Pek­can), who un­will­ingly car­ries out his boss’s some­times overly harsh in­struc­tions, such as re­mov­ing elec­tri­cal ap­pli­ances in­clud­ing a tele­vi­sion Win­ter Sleep (Kis uykusu) (M) Limited re­lease My Old Lady (M) Na­tional re­lease Win­ter Sleep, Lady, set from the home of Is­mail (Nejat Isler), who owes Aydin rent. When Is­mail’s son, Ilyas (Emirhan Doruk­tu­tan) hurls a rock at the wind­screen of the truck Hi­dayet is driv­ing with Aydin as his pas­sen­ger, this act of child­ish de­fi­ance has ram­i­fi­ca­tions that need to be ex­plained and set­tled. It is Is­mail’s more mod­er­ate brother Imam Hamdi (Ser­hat Kilic) who brings the boy to apol­o­gise to the land­lord, in one of sev­eral finely wrought dra­matic scenes.

While ten­sion be­tween land­lord and ten­ants mounts, Ni­hal has been oc­cu­py­ing her time by or­gan­is­ing a char­ity com­mit­tee that aims to im­prove the poor state of lo­cal schools; Aydin is vi­o­lently and ir­ra­tionally op­posed to this work, pos­si­bly be­cause of the pres­ence on the com­mit­tee of Levent (Nadir Sarib­a­cak), a young teacher with whom Ni­hal is per­haps a lit­tle too friendly. Adding to the rich­ness of the char­ac­ters in­volved is the pres­ence of Ne­cla (Demet Ak­bag), Aydin’s re­cently di­vorced sis­ter, and Suavi (Tamer Levent), a wi­d­ower and Aydin’s clos­est friend.

Cey­lan takes his time to ex­plore th­ese char­ac­ters. The mea­sured pac­ing and long di­a­logue scenes — beau­ti­fully writ­ten and acted — draw the viewer in­ex­orably into the lives of th­ese peo­ple, and there are enough sur­prises in the way the story un­folds to keep the viewer alert. Cey­lan is a moral­ist whose in­ter­est in the way peo­ple be­have has sus­tained all his films.

Win­ter Sleep, beau­ti­fully pho­tographed by Gokhan Tiryaki, is one of his most sub­lime achieve­ments, and is un­ques­tion­ably one of the most im­por­tant and com­pelling films re­leased in our cin­e­mas this year. ACROSS a long ca­reer, Is­rael Horovitz has writ­ten about 70 plays and now, at the age of 75, he has di­rected one of them, which was first staged in 2002. To start a ca­reer as film di­rec­tor at such an age is, I think, an all­time record, but though you would think that Horovitz would be har­monised with ma­te­rial that’s ob­vi­ously close to his heart, it’s the uncer­tain­ties in mood that limit the ap­peal of his film.

It starts off as a com­edy in which the al­ways en­gag­ing Kevin Kline plays Mathias, an Amer­i­can who ar­rives in Paris to claim the apart­ment in­her­ited from his late fa­ther, only to find the dead man’s mis­tress, 92-year-old Madame Gi­rard (Mag­gie Smith), firmly en­sconced and with no in­ten­tion of leav­ing. To make mat­ters worse, French law, specif­i­cally some­thing called vi­ager, means that not only can Mathias not evict Gi­rard but he is obliged to pay her a hefty monthly fee, money he sim­ply doesn’t have.

Thus the stage (and “stage” is never far away from the way events are de­picted here) is set for a comic clash of wills be­tween the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the New World and the stub­born old French­woman, the sort of plot that might have formed the ba­sis for an Eal­ing com­edy in an ear­lier era. On a fur­ther note of en­cour­age­ment, Kline and Smith are con­sum­mate comic per­form­ers, and both of them are in good form. But com­edy isn’t what Horovitz is ul­ti­mately all about, and after th­ese amus­ing in­tro­duc­tory scenes the film turns sour and very talky as, in lengthy speech after lengthy speech, the evils of the past are ex­humed and dis­sected.

All of which could still have made for an in­ter­est­ing film, and up to a point it does. Ul­ti­mately Kline’s scruffy, deeply dis­turbed character acts as a kind of an­chor to the piece.

Kristin Scott Thomas, as the old lady’s de­ter­mined daugh­ter, adds an edge to the ma­te­rial while Do­minique Pinon (who, since Del­i­catessen, has en­livened a great many films with his par­tic­u­lar brand of quirky com­edy) adds a sorely needed light touch, and is even brought back to ap­pear with Kline in the sort of post-credit epi­logue that usu­ally no one re­mains in the cin­ema to see.

Haluk Bil­giner as the cen­tral character in

top; Mag­gie Smith in

above

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