A Blanket of Loneliness Covers Istanbul; Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Small Masterpiece "Distant"
by Peter Brunette
I'm now more convinced than ever that a film festival is the worst possible place to see a film. Especially a serious art film. When I first saw Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Uzak" (Distant) at Cannes last year, where it was part of the competition, I didn't like it at all. Slow, pretentious, inscrutable, a travesty (or even parody) of an art film: that's what it seemed to me at the time, exhausted as I was by too few hours of sleep, and too many movies and deadlines. What a difference a change of context can make! I now see it as a small masterpiece, the kind of ultra-subtle film that amply rewards the patient and makes the impatient tear their hair and rend their garments. Though it's actually quite funny, it will separate the real art-film men and women from the boys and girls.
It goes with saying that little happens, and that the plot is more minimalist than a 30-second TV commercial. Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir) is a photographer living in Istanbul. One day an unemployed cousin from the hinterlands, Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak) comes to stay with him while looking for a job in the metropolis. They grate on each other's nerves. They go on a photo shoot in the countryside. Mahmut visits his mother in the hospital. Mahmut's ex-wife, whom he apparently still loves, leaves for a new life in Canada. The final shot is of Mahmut, alone, staring expressionless out to sea.
"Distant" resembles, more than a little, the recently released Swedish film "Kitchen Stories" in its droll revelation of character and its virtually dialogue-less situations that depend on visual gags for their effect. But it's also simultaneously funnier and more serious than that worthy film. Ceylan relies on visual juxtaposition not only for laughs, but also for narrative exposition, character development, and theme, and if you don't pay ultra-close attention you're bound to miss a crucial connection or clue. Most of his shots are extreme long shots for exteriors and motionless medium shots (with a marvelous depth of field) for virtually all the interiors. Like the Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming Liang, whom many viewers will think of when they see this film, the director relies particularly on the long take, and just when you feel that you cannot bear to see a certain image for one more second, something touching, or hilarious, or slightly magical, happens. After a while, you realize that you are in the hands of a master and you begin to relax, trusting that these payoffs will continue to come on a regular basis. And they do.
Given its rather dour theme of loneliness, it's important to stress just how funny the film is. A lot of this effect is achieved through the masterful use of repetition, and the quotidian domestic comedy of two virtual strangers living together is milked for all it's worth. In a more serious vein, Ceylan works wonders with expressive land- and cityscapes. A lovely yet deadening snowfall is brilliantly exploited for its thematic power, and the director is secure enough in his artistry to let pictorial composition speak on its own (his acute photographic sense leads one to believe that the photographer Mahmut is his stand-in), without gumming up the works with lots of forced close-ups. Sounds are also used expressively, as with the slight strains of classical music heard at intervals throughout (reminiscent of its use in Sokurov's films) and intermittent otherworldly sounds like the wind chime outsider Mahmut's apartment.
Very, very gradually it is revealed that Mahmut is burnt-out and lonely. At a gathering of fellow intellectuals, he suggests that "photography is dead." Later, stopping at a lovely, photogenic site in the countryside, he first expresses delight then decides it's not worth the bother. When he meets his ex-wife and she announces that she's permanently moving to Canada with her new husband, we guess that she is trying to send a subtle signal to him. Psychologically unable to respond, he can do little more than peer from behind pillars at the airport, watching her head for her new life without him. His cousin Yusuf similarly prowls the anonymous city looking for companionship, both male and female, that he is unable, tragically, to find in the likeliest place of all, with Mahmut. Yusuf's problems, though, seem more economic in nature and one gets the sense that if the factory in his hometown hadn't closed, he would have been all right. In the event, loneliness blankets both their lives, like the snow covering Istanbul, but they seem utterly incapable of doing anything about it. The film ends with a wordless, devastating shot of Mahmut looking out to sea, as the camera tracks almost imperceptibly (for the first time in the film) on his emotionally ravaged face. We realize with a shudder that this kind of extended, supremely subtle long take is exactly what art cinema is supposed to be all about.