Friday, March 06, 2009

Three Monkeys (15)

Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Written by Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Ercan Kesal
Screening at FACT from 6th March 2009

Like the third wise monkey from the Japanese proverb, the characters in Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's latest film speak no evil, on screen at least. But suspicion and secrecy about what we don't see or hear permeates every single second of screen time, contributing to 109 minutes of often gripping but deeply flawed minimalist cinema.

In the fascinating first scene, we see businessman and politician Servet (Ercan Kesel) kill a man in a late night car accident. He asks his driver Eyüp (Yavuz Bingol) to save his bosses' reputation by claiming responsibility. In return, Servet promises to provide for Eyüp's wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan) and late teenage son Ismail (Rifat Sungar) whilst he is in prison, and pay a reward on his release.

When Ismail fails an important exam, he hits on the idea of following his father and becoming a professional driver, but for that he needs a car, and for that he needs an advance on his dad's fee. When Hacer goes to meet Servet and ask for the money, they begin a liaison that will have terrible consequences.

Aslan, Bingol, and Sungar deliver performances which satisfy every requirement of their demanding director. Ceylan's stunning direction and cinematography creates a believable working class landscape where every drop of water, tick of the clock, and centimetre of floor space is vital and contested. This partly makes up for some serious deficiencies in the screenplay.

For instance, none of the characters display particularly admirable traits. Eyüp is a thuggish, possessive and thoroughly unpleasant father, Ismail is a clinging yet hateful son, and Hacer meekly submits to the abuse of the three men in her life. Of course, all of these personalities exist in abundance everywhere, but when we look as deeply into the characters' eyes as Ceylan forces us to, we must ask them each 'Why?' The director provides no answers and no real clues.

Even Servet - the exploitative semi-gangster - is poorly drawn. We see him losing his race in the 2007 general election, but he accepts this defeat with barely a shrug. In reality that year's vote was a bitterly fought one, even by Turkish standards. As a candidate of the 'secularist' section of the ruling elite, we might expect Servet to be a little more upset at the local and national triumph of his Islamist rivals.

This lack of historical and social perspective often goes hand in hand with a certain kind of lonely pessimism. Ceylan confirms this in interviews, where he talks of recent suffering being the necessary result of an unchanging 'human nature'. In other words: things are bad, they have always been this bad, and they will always be this bad.

As the superstructure of global society trembles at the tremors of an economic earthquake, the time is fast approaching when this kind of detached approach to art will no longer be viable. If Ceylan puts himself where the action is, he will be able to use make great use of his visual skills, and maybe become one of the most important directors of the next decade. If not, irrelevance beckons.
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