Absorbing look at Turkish lives
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