Snow falls on the Cappadocia Mountains as turmoil boils up indoors between a wealthy writer and his wife. At least that would the superficial way to
describe master filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest intimate epic, which earned him the Palme d’Or award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. But with
Ceylan’s work nothing is ever shallow. His affinity to elicit nuanced vulnerability from both his actors and the landscape is present in every frame of
this 196-minute marvel of a film. Yes, it’s a film that expands for over three hours, which takes place in just a few locations and focuses on a small
cast. That, however, should not deter anyone from experiencing this riveting and powerful work. Time is not an issue for Ceylan’s calibrated pacing, and it
never becomes one for the viewer that is willing to dive in fully into the emotional and philosophical odyssey that is “Winter Sleep.”
Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), the owner of a charmingly rustic hotel, is having issues with a family of unruly tenants at a different property within the mountain community. He
rarely bothers with micromanaging any of his business. His butler/handyman Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan) handles all the daily operations that would otherwise occupy Aydin’s
time. Instead, the refined middle-aged man dedicates his days to writing. Aydin writes articles about relevant occurrences in the small town, and he is
particularly drawn to the lack of righteousness he sees in certain religious leaders. In fact, his own self-declared virtue is often what scares people
away. He is a man of principles who, unconsciously perhaps, uses such qualities against the flawed individuals that surround him.
Both his young wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and his divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbag) feel weak under his unspoken and all-consuming superiority. On the one hand, Nihal wants to find a
small amount of independence by doing charity work without Aydin’s supervision. Raising money without his help would grant her a sense of fulfillment
outside of his domain. Necla, on the other hand, is obsessed with the idea of defeating evil by passively accepting it. She claims that by not fighting evil
the perpetrator will experience shame. Aydin finds this philosophy absurd, probably even more so because of a recent incident with the troublemaking
tenants. This concoction of complex ideologies and internal conflicts makes for thought provoking conversations throughout the film.
“Winter Sleep” is evidently a dialogue driven film that was inspired by Chekhov’s stories, which Ceylan avidly transformed into the
perfect material for his poetic vision. Complementing the searing debates about class and human nature are the spectacular vistas that characterize the
director’s work. The vast snowy landscape serves as ominous backdrop for the characters’ realizations about one another. Like in his previous works, Ceylan
once again correlates his protagonists’ internal state with the natural environment and the weather. Their introspective thoughts translate into the
dangerous beauty of his chosen locations.
Indoors, the Caravaggesque cinematography by Ceylan’s longtime collaborator Gökhan Tiryaki is warm and elegant. The images are just stylized enough to be noticed but still minimalistic in order for the
outstanding performances to shine. Veteran Turkish actor Haluk Bilginer is a
subdued force of nature. Aydin is a man whose convictions define him. There is little room in his idiosyncratic lifestyle to notice the suffocating nature
of his behavior. Bilginer captures that self-righteousness with unsettling easy. As the plot thickness and his worldview is challenged repeatedly, doubt starts
to set in. Yet, as he himself puts it when confronting timid Nihal, he is not entirely to blame for his monstrous outbursts. “Idolizing a man and then
being mad at him because he’s not a god. Do you think that’s fair?” exclaims Aydin. The same monster that is freighting is also capable of kindness, and is
this grading duality that is so difficult to accept. Ceylan doesn’t work with absolutes.
Among the marvelously cast ensemble, one performer that stand out is young Emirhan Doruktutan who plays Ilyas, and Nejat Isler who is his father Ismail. With hardly any lines the boy manages to
inflict tremendous pain. His penetrating look conveys immeasurable anger towards Aydin and his family for humiliating his father. At the same time,
Ismail’s quietly deranged grin is lethal in crucial scenes. Anguish masked with pride is visible on both of their faces, which is definitely an affecting
When it comes to exploring morality and the ambiguity of his characters’ actions, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s has an infinite talent for subtly. He allows each
scene to play to its limit. The hypnotizing back and forth between his actors is clearly the result of profound work and trust between them and the filmmaker.
Sure, some people will undoubtedly be put off by the running time or the specific storytelling approach that Ceylan employs to slow cook the drama. The way
he permeates the plot with a potent dose of big ideas dissected through a very personal narrative is something that asks for the audience to be receptive
and to go all the way. Nevertheless, “Winter Sleep” is a ravishingly beautiful testament to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s incredible talent for precise
observation. Give yourself the chance to be affected. Without a doubt I was, from minute 1 to minute 196, absorbed by the impeccable mastery of one of
Ceylan’s most accomplished masterpieces.