Long before he was a filmmaker, the Turkish writer and director Nuri Bilge Ceylan was a photographer. While studying electrical engineering at university in Istanbul, Ceylan earnt money by taking passport photos for friends and classmates. Here was a microcosm of his future art: the close inspection of character, the image as a means of identity, and the revelation of the unspoken needs we each carry within us. After university and military service, Ceylan would move on from still to moving images, but some of the most powerful moments in his now celebrated body of work, particularly his use of brooding landscapes that encompass the individual regarding them, feel like perfectly captured pictures.
Born in 1959, Nuri Bilge Ceylan grew up in both urban and rural Turkey. Both distinct settings often feature as backdrops in his works, where the landscape, weather and character of the populace are all barometers that take the measure of his protagonists. Beginning with his 1995 short Cocoon, his early films used a skeletal crew and a mix of professional and amateur actors (including family members). From 2006’s Climates, his fourth feature, the size of the productions grew to match his budding international reputation, but the emotional focus remained intimate.
Ceylan has cited works by Ingmar Bergman (Scenes From a Marriage, Shame) as being personal favourites, and he is part of the frayed lineage created by the Swedish master: a distinctly European sensibility, the struggle to come to terms with self-doubt, the unspoken provocation of a shared relationship, and the stark psychology an individual can exhibit to all except themselves. His work uses long, static shots that concentrate your focus, punctuated by outbursts of emotion, either loving or scornful, that feel connected to the moment. There’s an almost palpable physical edge to Ceylan’s work and there’s nothing remote or detached about his often acute observations. You instinctively feel every frame of his features.
SBS on Demand has a triple bill of three excellent Nuri Bilge Ceylan movies that provide a compelling introduction to his career.
Repeatedly in Climates, a film that beneath the surface is roiling with emotion, Ceylan positions one character in the foreground and the other in the background, so that they’re divided but nonetheless connected. That uneasy linkage sums up university lecturer Isa (Ceylan) and his television art director partner Bahar (Ebru Ceylan, the filmmaker’s wife and frequent collaborator), who are first seen in Turkey’s sun-drenched Mediterranean west and finally meet in the country’s snowbound east. The unblinking camera captures their fraught bond, with the single shot of Bahar’s face pressed to the ancient stone of ruins communicating a sense of distress that soon divides the pair.
There’s a long arresting scene where Isa visits a woman, Serap (Nazan Kirilmis), he’s previously been unfaithful with, that reveals a corrosively pleasurable dynamic (the pair’s eventual coupling on the floor invades the camera’s personal space), but Isa is drawn to Bahar despite the ructions that previously beset them. “Why did you come?” she asks him after he tracks her down. “Because of you, of course,” he replies, an answer that offers dedication but not an explanation. Ceylan, who’s stayed behind the camera since, is very good as a man who can’t articulate what he wants, but nonetheless pursues it. Repeatedly the sound of baying dogs are heard in the background mix: a sign of pursuit, a sign of hunger, a sign of danger.
After Servet (Ercan Kesal), a wealthy businessman with political aspirations tires while driving in the country one night and kills a pedestrian, he calls his driver, Eyup (Yavuz Bingol), and asks him to take the blame and do the prison time in exchange for payment. “Yes sir, no problem,” Eyup tells him, and with that Three Monkeys – a see no, hear no, speak no evil reference that’s more harsh portent than mere pun – plunges down into the slow, steady shockwaves that come with the collapse of morality. Throughout this examination of personal responsibility and class divisions, Ceylan visually references a shipping beacon on the shores of the Bosporus, but neither conspirator, nor Eyup’s increasingly involved family, wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan) and teenage son Ismail (Ahmet Refat Sungar), can reach safety.
Marked by a desaturated colour palette and deception-tinged humidity, the film unfolds with remarkable economy. Ceylan leaps from Eyup’s acceptance to the wayward Ismail visiting him in jail, or he’ll show the ramifications of a crucial moment without depicting what actually happened. Servet’s self-obsession is galling, but it also changes the very tenor of Eyup’s family, particularly once Hacer begins an affair with their married benefactor. When Eyup is released he can sense the fractures he’s encouraged, and there’s a tragic completeness to his eventual attempt to pass on responsibility to another. It’s as if he is cursed and knows that as in a horror film transference is the only way to lift it.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Darkness is draped over Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a legal procedural where the murderer has confessed but the victim’s body can’t be found. A convoy of cars drive the pitch black of a rural Anatolian night, headlights poking over undulating roads as the convoy goes from one possible location the previously drunk killer, Kenan (Firat Tanis), might have used to dump the corpse to another. The painterly images, which are matched by the use of firelight to light scenes, are slowly matched by the conversations of the official party, which turn from sardonic small talk and surreptitious anecdotes to acknowledgments of failings and the excision of painful truths. Hope, like the melancholic light, feels like it is failing.
The officials, who include the adjudicating Commissar (Yildaz Erdogan), a veteran prosecutor (Taner Birsel) and a young doctor (Muhammet Uzuner), are revealed by degrees, as are the tragic events of the previous days. In terms of inclusiveness, length, and quiet calm, Ceylan is at odds with his approach to Three Monkeys, but the running time allows a soulful, engrossing disarray to emerge that is subtly illustrative about the flaws in Turkish society and the country’s uneven prospects. The victim’s body is eventually found, but it’s not what these men are truly seeking.
Browse from more than 900 movies at SBS On Demand
Follow us on Facebook
Listen/subscribe to our culture podcast, The Playlist