Combining relatively modest working methods with a highly distinctive visual sensibility, the films of Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan eloquently speak of the emotional impassivity that is an affliction of 21st-century living.
Initially a photographer, Ceylan’s first foray into the moving image was the short Cocoon (1995). Shot in striking black and white, with Ceylan also acting as producer, co-editor and cinematographer, the wordless film tentatively hints at the impossibility of companionship, one of the defining motifs of Ceylan’s work. A feature, Small Town, emerged two years later. Told from the perspective of two children, and in four entwined parts running parallel to the seasons, Small Town served notice of Ceylan’s gift for wry comedy and of his distinguished approach to framing characters and landscapes. Cementing Ceylan’s clarity of vision and his sensitivity to the delicate nuances of life, Clouds of May (1999) takes another crisply composed look at the vagaries of country living. An observation of people coming together, briefly interacting and then gently drifting apart again, the film is inscribed with a profound reverence for the lives of its characters.
Generally casting non-professional actors and family members, and continuing to call upon his increasing stature as a photographer, Ceylan brought these elements and his interest in estrangement to wonderful fruition with the autobiographical Distant (2002). The story of two remote relatives (Muzzafer Özdemir and Mehmet Emin Toprak) awkwardly thrown together, the film renders modern Istanbul as a desolate, if intermittently picturesque, snow-cloaked metropolis, with the director drawing on Chekhov and Tarkovsky in his analysis of the alienating effects of urban life. The first film of the director’s to be selected for Cannes, Distant was awarded both the festival’s Grand Prix and the Best Actor prize, which was shared between Özdemir and Emin Toprak. The latter award was tinged with sadness as Özdemir, Ceylan’s cousin, was killed in a car crash shortly after the film was completed.
Ebru Ceylan has been a contributor to her husband’s films in a variety of guises, and Climates (2006) saw both spouses stepping in front of the camera’s penetrating gaze for an intense and unflinching look at the marriage of a successful Istanbul couple evidently on the brink of collapse. Wilfully blurring the distinction between on- and off-screen lives, Climates makes for frequently uncomfortable and emotionally devastating viewing, revealing Ceylan as a master storyteller who recognises and rigorously investigates the great potential for loneliness and self-destruction within us all. The first of the director’s films to be shot using high-definition digital video, the film captures with enhanced clarity and precision the stunning Turkish locations. The physical details of the protagonists are also beautifully rendered; witness the opening scene of Isa and Bahar frolicking, first playfully and then with the aim of causing provocation, on a golden sandy beach. Such moments lend Climates a pronounced and profound sense of intimacy.
Three Monkeys (2008) expands the unspoken dynamics of a dysfunctional family to society as a whole. Weaving a carefully calibrated maelstrom of violence, moral decay and ruined lives, this gripping psychological drama examines the fall-out from a hit-and-run traffic accident to present a darkly malevolent civilisation slowly suffocating through its own avarice and weakness. This is undoubtedly a dark and pessimistic work, though one still punctuated with flashes of characteristic black humour.
The winner of the Cannes 2011 Grand Prix, Once upon a Time in Anatolia, a title that nods towards Sergio Leone, stands as one of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s very finest achievements. Full of piercing insights and a finely tuned, somewhat macabre wit, this is an epic and rigorous tale of a night and day in a murder investigation.
In a short prologue, three men are drinking and talking. There follows a brutish brawl and hasty confession. A nocturnal convoy of cars is then shown travelling around the countryside as the confessor tries to remember where a body lays buried. After several false leads and a rest in a remote village, the corpse is finally discovered early the next morning. In the course of the long investigation, the hidden thoughts of the main protagonists are gradually themselves also exhumed.
Beautifully photographed in the Anatolian steppes by Gökhan Tiryaki, Once upon a Time in Anatolia is a meticulously constructed police procedural populated by bickering police and hard-bitten prosecutors. Based on an actual event experienced by Ercan Kesal, one of the three writers on the project alongside Ebru and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the film unhurriedly replicates the ebb and flow of human life, unfolding like a fascinating game of chess with clues and gestures ambiguously revealed. In one landmark sequence an apple falls from a tree, the camera tracking it as it bobs and ebbs gently down a stream. The director audaciously decides against showing the actual murder that triggers the search. Ceylan has commented: ‘If you want to find something, you have to get lost. I wanted viewers to lose their usual points of reference, before they slowly become accustomed to the light.’
Citing Chekhov (the film features a doctor, who from initially being a passive observer is gradually revealed as perhaps the key participant in the narrative) and Vermeer as inspirations and influences, Ceylan has crafted a bold and at times testing film whose primary interest would seem to be the concept of truth, and the manner by which we arrive at it.