For regular readers of my film reviews, you are probably aware that I have referred to Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. After seeing “Winter Sleep” (Kış Uykusu) yesterday, I am ready to upgrade him to the greatest filmmaker today, the only one that can be compared to the masters I encountered in the early 60s: Godard, Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, et al. Unlike any film I have seen in recent years, “Winter Sleep” is as complex and as literary as the classics of a bygone era. In many ways, it is the Turkish equivalent of a Chekhov play with the added visual dimension of the mind-bending landscapes of Cappadocia, the ancient region in Anatolia where houses and temples were carved into the mountains.
Most of the action in “Winter Sleep” takes place in the Hotel Othello, one of the Cappadocian dwellings that grow out of a cliff like a mushroom from a tree. Since the film is a meditation on good and evil, the hotel is named appropriately. Aydin, its owner, is a member of the local village’s elite. He inherited the hotel from his father and a number of the rental properties that poor villagers struggle to afford. Despite the reputation of Turkey’s supposedly booming economy and the governing AKP’s charitable beneficence, it had a GINI coefficient in 2012 only 2 points more equitable than El Salvador’s.
In an early scene, Aydin (played by Haluk Bilginer, a veteran of 55 films) is in the front seat of his hotel’s SUV being driven back to the Othello from the nearby village by his driver/desk clerk Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), when out of nowhere a rock crashes into the car’s window nearly forcing it to veer off the road and into a serious accident. The assailant is a young boy who Hidayet pursues and finally captures.
They then take the captive youth back to his meager home, one of Haydin’s rental properties, where they meet his father and uncle and soon learn that the boy threw the rock because the family—5 people crowded into 3 small rooms—has just lost their television to the debt collectors Aydin’s lawyer sicced on them. For the rural poor, a television is one of the few pleasures that they can count on.
Ismail, the boy’s father, is in no position to pay the back rent, let alone the broken window. We will eventually learn that he is an ex-convict who cannot find work. As Aydin and Hidayet are setting down the terms for repairing the broken window, Ismail smashes his fist into his own window and barks at the two men: Now, we are even.
Despite and perhaps because of Aydin’s efforts to remain calm and affect a lofty and patient attitude, Ismail reaches the boiling point and tries to physically attack his landlord and driver until the uncle, a man called Hamdi hodja (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç), separates them. Hamdi is everything that Ismail is not, a perpetually smiling and subservient sort used to bowing before the wealthy and the powerful. A few days after the confrontation, he brings his nephew to the hotel to beg forgiveness and have him kiss Aydin’s right hand, a ritual act in Turkey’s Anatolian hinterlands. Sick from pneumonia, the boy collapses in the act.
Aydin lives in an aesthetic cocoon as remote from Ismail’s world as the ex-convict is from his. He spends his days in his study writing articles for the local newspaper on the need to “improve” the local village spiritually and ethically. His writings are laced with platitudes and betray a Pecksniffian sense of his own superiority.
There are two women in Aydin’s life, both very much tuned in to his arrogance and sterility. One is his sister Necla (Demet Akbag), just a few years younger than him, and the other is his wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) who is about half his age and lives in her own quarters at the hotel. In the earliest scenes between Aydin and them, there are signs of friction but barely anticipate the dramatically explosive scenes in which the two confront him over his failings as a human being that are implicitly connected to his class status. Although not a political director/screenwriter in the narrow sense, Nuri Bilge Ceylan is about as clear as one can be on such matters without descending into propaganda.
In much the same way as Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard”, this is a tale about the futility of the lives of the rich and the poor alike. In its monomaniacal determination to preserve its class status, the Aydins of the world are impoverishing themselves spiritually and ethically.
“Winter Sleep” won the prestigious Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It opens at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York on December 19th. Running at over three hours, it is a throwback to the epic films of the 1960s, especially those Marxist films that depicted the same sort of class divisions such as Bertolucci’s “1900”. Among all the films being made today, it is a testament that the Grand Tradition is still alive, even if the terrain has shifted eastward. Ceylan is a gifted dramatist and cinematographer with a unique vision of the crisis we face today in a world that is divided between Aydins and Ismails. Despite its narrow focus on a small group of people, it is a story that reflects the greater drama involving billions today. It is a masterpiece in my opinion, a word I do not use lightly.