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The esoteric world of masterful Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan proves as vibrant and uneasy as ever in Winter Sleep, a Chekhovian meditation on a marriage that returns to the mood of the director’s early films like Climates and Clouds of May. This is not necessarily good news for fans of his last two very particular murder mysteries, Three Monkeys and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, where the barest hint of genre offered viewers a tentative inroad into a long, slow-moving exploration of the human soul.
Here, things are different. The 3½ hour running time takes no prisoners even among art house audiences and demands a commitment to attentive viewing that, despite the film’s sometimes terrible longeurs, pays off in the end. But the challengingly long dialogue scenes, shot in brazenly elementary shot-countershot style, will further challenge audiences who lack excellent subtitle-reading skills. Its bow in Cannes competition offers the kind of showcase that can make a difference, and some kind of awards recognition could signal roomier niches later on. Ceylan has already won the Grand Jury Prize (for Distant) and the best director award (for Three Monkeys.)
The story is set in one of the most picturesque corners of the Earth, the steppes of Cappadocia, where ancient mushroom-like caves dot the stony landscape. Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a local landowner who has retired from an acting career, has converted one of these into the trendy Othello Hotel. The name turns out to be a red herring, because jealousy has nothing to do with the quiet domestic crisis that follows between the gray-bearded Aydin and his lovely young wife, Nihal (Melisa Sozen).
Driven to “the village” by his faithful factotum Hidayet (a commanding Ayberk Pekcan), Aydin falls victim to a rock-throwing boy who nearly gets them into a car accident. The boy’s father is a poor jailbird and drunkard, and their meeting is highly unpleasant. Aydin retreats to the solitude of his tasteful studio, where he works on writing his high-principled weekly column for the local gazette.
Long-winded dialogues with his divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbag) offer painfully true insight into Aydin’s irritating, better-than-thou character and introduce one of the film’s principal themes: the cynicism of the rich toward the poor. While Aydin tends to bury his head in the sand on the gulf that separates his lifestyle (actually modest by most standards) and that of his dirt-poor tenants in arrears with the rent, Nihal takes concrete steps to improve her community by collecting donations for the local school. When he finds out what she’s doing, Aydin butts in and tries to bully her out of her charitable intentions.
Rather than show Aydin and Nihal slugging it out, Ceylan and his regular co-scripter Ebru Ceylan describe their clashing characters in dialogue, a risky approach that at times skirts somnolence. Yet their bickering, nagging back-and-forth, which also involves Necla, is revelatory and wincingly on target.
Just as everything seems clear and black-and-white, the film tosses the characters up into the air and lets them fall in quite different places. The final half-hour is a joy to watch, as turning points follow in rapid succession. There are even a few moments of humor, like the foreman slipping on his icy boots, or a hilarious drunken revelry by the village teacher (Nadir Saribacak) that are welcome breaks from the solemn mood of a marriage coming apart at the seams.
Given the fact that Aydin is an actor, he appears in many guises throughout the film as husband, writer, philosopher and landowner, and Bilginer runs through a repertory of attitudes and postures, to the extent of looking very different from scene to scene. As the young wife, Sozen is smart and cool, every bit as analytical as her manipulative spouse, but not without her own faults. The well-chosen supporting cast is very fine, including extended scenes with the simpatico local Imam Hamdi (Serhat Kilic), who is himself fighting debt and poverty, and Nejat Isler as his proud, penniless brother who shocks Nihal to tears in a superbly shot climax.
As in all Ceylan’s flms, the landscape plays such a key role it should have an agent. Here the unearthly panorama of giant stones and blowing grass, dotted with Disney-like fairy-tale houses, is home to wild horses. At first the fog rolls in, then it begins to snow, giving DP Gokhan Tiryaki a landscape of the soul to mold with light.
Production companies: Zeyno Films, Memento Films Production, Bredok Film Production
Cast: Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sozen, Demet Akbag, Ayberk Pekcan, Serhat Kilic, Nejat Isler, Tamer Levent, Nadir Saribacak, Mehmet Ali Nuroglu, Emirhan Doruktutan
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Screenwriters: Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Producer: Zeynep Ozbatur Atakan
Executive producer: Sezgi Ustun
Director of photography: Gokhan Tiryaki
Production designer: Gamze Kus
Editors: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Bora Goksingol
Sales: Memento Films International
No rating, 196 minutes
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