2006Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Cast: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ebru Ceylan, Nazan Kesal
his year we may at last pay better attention to Turkey. In the Middle East’s most secular democracy, the harbinger issue of entry into the European Union is irrevocably linked to arts and culture because of what novelist Elif Shafak has called a backlash by right-wing nationalists. They would prefer Turkey forego the EU, but not for reasons of Islamic fundamentalism. Still largely unreported in the West, Turkey’s artistic Renaissance of the past three decades helped produce Shafak herself as well as this year’s Nobel laureate, novelist Orhan Pamuk. Both are among the roughly 70 Turkish artists, intellectuals, and journalists charged under the notorious Article 301 with “insulting Turkish identity” by open reference to the 1915 deportation and massacre of Turkish Armenians as “genocide.” Pamuk’s sentence last year was suspended. Although Shafak’s September 21st trial ended in acquittal in less than two hours, she was the first person prosecuted under Turkey’s criminal code for dialogue uttered by fictional characters (in The Bastard of Istanbul, due out in the US in early 2007).
But these things can go either way. Turkey’s roiling, complicated cultural moment has also produced filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan. His body of work, already seen abroad as hefty, is remarkable for what he accomplishes while largely eschewing the spoken word. Only his fourth feature, Climates was released theatrically last Friday, having just screened at the New York Film Festival. Like his previous film Distant, Climates won a host of international festival and critics’ awards before arriving in the U.S.
Ceylan was a photographer before he took up cinema in 1995 and it shows in his expansive and elegiac landscape use, constant attention to visual composition and ease with long-held shots. His new 80-print photo exhibit, Turkey Cinemascope, debuts in Greece next week along with a retrospective of all his films at the Thessalonica International Film Festival. He is a minimalist in both method and cinematic style. Climates is the first of his films that he did not both shoot and produce himself—besides writing, directing, financing, and much of the editing. He usually casts family members, shot his last feature in his own home, and since the 2003 death of his cousin and usual lead, Mehmet Emin Toprak, Ceylan now also acts.
Climates is nothing if not distilled, with a straightforward narrative in three acts, only hints of its characters’ histories, and scant dialogue. Like his first feature Kasaba (The Small Town, 1997), it’s structured around the four seasons. And like his next two features, Clouds of May (1999) and Distant (2002), the new film’s protagonist makes his way in life with a camera. The damp, chilly, snowy Turkish winter especially evokes uncommon isolation and vulnerability in Ceylan’s films as his characters travel ever deeper into disconnection.
Ceylan’s latest opens in summer as Isa (Ceylan), a middle-aged art history instructor and doctoral candidate, is photographing ruins outside the tourist resort of Kas on Turkey’s southern coast. He quarrels with his deeply unhappy younger partner Bahar (Ebru Ceylan, the filmmaker’s wife), and breaks up with her at the beach. Riding back to Istanbul together on his scooter, they crash after she impulsively covers his eyes with her hands; he roughly threatens to throw her off the road-side cliff into the sea. She leaves him there and walks back to Istanbul herself.
In the rainy fall capital, Isa spies on Bahar, who works as a TV art director. He returns to campus and chitchat with his office mate about keeping girlfriends in line. He resumes a flirtation with another friend’s girlfriend, Serap (Nazan Kesal). This leads to a single, long breath-stopping take in which it’s never quite clear whether the rough sex between Isa and Serap is welcomed by her or not, and which overlaps—just as one dares take a breath in relief—with the staccato sound of a sewing machine’s needle penetrating fabric. It’s his mother, repairing Isa’s ripped trousers the next day.
As winter descends, Isa follows Bahar east to Agri, where he has heard from Serap that she is working on a TV series shoot. Isa’s plane lands in an overwhelming blizzard. He trails Bahar through a town so small that she strolls through the cattle in a street to a tea shop. Despite her chill and wary reception—Bahar’s name means “spring” in Turkish and surely she represents the promise of a portable “climate” in Isa’s life—he persists in his idea that they reunite. In another of Ceylan’s virtuoso single-take scenes, Isa makes his rehearsed speech about how he has changed in a van where he’s cornered her at the TV shoot location, as she weeps, pressed against the window, and the crew interrupts to load equipment. But when Bahar asks “just one thing”—whether he has slept with Serap again—his nerve fails him and he lies. Feeling he has failed, Isa climbs to a chilly precipice and photographs the nearby famed Ishakpasa palace ruins. As he had been with Serap after what was, after all, only the more obvious assault, Isa is not prepared for Bahar’s reconsideration when she turns up at his hotel the night before he leaves.
The clearest stylistic comparison here is with Antonioni’s post-war films. Ceylan’s aesthetic has a more varied pedigree and his attitude toward his characters is more compassionate—he says Chekhov guides his scriptwriting. His long takes and the visually accumulating feelings of his characters also recall Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang, especially Vive L’Amour and the radical disconnection that occurs with rapid movement to cities in times of financial hardship and uncertain regimes. Ceylan has widely discussed these conditions as they apply to contemporary Turkey and it is more challenging to see his films in this light than as safely derivative.
The filmmaker began his career “loving” close-ups yet has subsequently grown away from them. In the interview following Distant on that film’s DVD, he describes the simple discipline he has instead set for himself and, by extension, for us: “You should have a good reason for a close-up and for a cut. If not, don’t do it.” Looking away out of discomfort is evidently not one of them—a form of lying similar to cheap talk. You will not hear ordinary film dialogue the same way again.
Climates is currently playing in limited release.