THREE MONKEYS Nuri Bilge Ceylan's film won him the Best Director prize at Cannes 2008, and you can see why.
If the selections in this year's Boston Turkish Film Festival are any indication, nobody in that country lives happily ever after these days. All relationships are falling apart. Couples battle and separate; families disintegrate; classes wage warfare; communities drift into anomie, chaos, and Armageddon. When a film is set in Istanbul, a city that straddles Asia and Europe, the focus tends to fall on the Bosporus Strait that divides it in two. Whenever someone gazes outward from a shore, a recurring motif in these movies, chances are he or she is looking not at the land beyond but at the gulf in between.
|The Eighth Annual Boston Turkish Film Festival | Museum of Fine Arts | March 27–April 5|
The youthfulness of these directors — many of the films are debut features — might explain the pessimism. Angst often fuels first efforts. But that doesn't account for veteran director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's THREE MONKEYS (Üç Maymun; 2008), which opens with a brilliantly composed sequence. A car drives down a road, a tiny blur of light in the pitch-darkness. The light abruptly turns blood red. The driver, Servet (Ercan Kesal), a wealthy political candidate, has put on the brakes too late. Having run someone down, he gets his chauffeur, Eyüp (Yavuz Bingöl), to take the blame in turn for a "lump sum" once the chauffeur serves his jail time. But now the chauffeur's teenage son, Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Sungar), idle and without paternal authority, gets involved with a bad lot. The chauffeur's wife, Hacer (Hatice Aslan), asks his boss for an advance to buy a car so the kid can take a job out of town. And so the stage is set, if not for a Greek tragedy, then for a classic film noir.
Three Monkeys won Best Director for Ceylan at Cannes 2008, and he will be on hand to accept this festival's Award for Excellence in Turkish Films. He has earned these prizes, not just for his clear-eyed insight into human turmoil, or his mastery of detail, rhythm and tone, but for his sneaky sense of humor. There's a scene in Three Monkeys in which, during a tense confrontation, a character has to fumble for several excruciating minutes to find a cellphone and silence an embarrassing ringtone.
Some of the new directors, however, take their dehumanization and futility too seriously. The title of Selim Evci's TWO LINES (Iki Çizgi; 2008) refers, I believe, to two parallel lines that never meet. Those would be Mert (Kaan Keskin) and Selin (Gülçin Santircioglu), a yuppie couple in Istanbul who lead lives of quiet alienation. He takes photographs, she works in an office, they go to the theater but never really speak. Evci's elliptical and oblique Antonioni-esque storytelling displays artfulness, and the blurring of causality and continuity evokes his characters' malaise. He makes it clear that, despite a trip to the country, their relationship is going nowhere. Then again, neither is the film.
Chronology also stars in Ümit Ünal's ARA (2007): the opening epigraph quoting Harold Pinter's Betrayal gives away its time-reversal structure and four-way sexual intrigue. What causes the drunken, perhaps violent break-up of the marriage of Ender (Ender Akakçe) and Selda (Betül Çobanoglu) that is the opening scene? How are Ender's best friend, Veli (Serhat Tutumluer), and his wife, Gül (Selen Uçer), involved? The 10-year history of these relationships unfolds backward, all in one room in an empty Istanbul apartment building. Among the issues: the women are free spirits while the two men are from the country and still tied to tradition; Ender is overweight and rather ugly; Veli has sexual problems. The film breaks free of formula only when the camera finally drifts out of the room, into the more interesting misery on the street below.
The apartment in Ara is rented out to movie crews, and that allows for a self-reflexive refrain. Such artifice also marks Dervis Zaim's DOT (Nokta; 2008). This one opens with the calligraphic stroke of the title, accenting an Arabic inscription for "Forgive them." The camera cranes down to reveal that the dot is, in fact, the calligrapher punctuating the words, which have been written in God-sized print on the white surface of a salt flat. It is the best moment in the film, which then devolves into a so-so but very symbolic tale of blackmail, revenge, and redemption, with Ahmet (Mehmet Ali Nuroglu) and Selim (Serhat Kiliç) trying to sell a valuable copy of the Koran owned by Selim's family and getting mixed up with gangsters.
Çagan Irmak's THE MESSENGER (Ulak; 2007) is likewise as much about the process of storytelling as it is about the story. In some distant time in a remote village, a stranger (Çetin Tekindor) arrives and proceeds to tell the children a tale in which the messenger of the title enters a village and reveals the secret corruption behind the seeming respectability. The Messenger is like Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter, but armed with a story, not a gun, and the striking central conceit doesn't go overboard till the fire-and-brimstone ending.