Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s meditative but tightly wound Winter Sleep.By Christos Tsiolkas.
The depth of winter sleep
Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) is a former theatre actor and intellectual from Istanbul who now manages the Othello, a boutique hotel set in the astonishing natural and human-made beauty of the Cappadocian countryside. He is also landlord to a cluster of other homes in the nearby villages. The tourist season is ending and Aydin accompanies his driver and caretaker, Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), on an inspection of his properties. While driving back to the hotel, a schoolboy throws a stone that smashes the front passenger window. The boy, Ilyas (Emirhan Doruktutan), is the son of one of Aydin’s tenants, Ismail (Nejat Isler), who has recently been released from prison, and who has been unable to pay his rent. Aydin, who disdains dirtying his hands with the grubby realities of money, has allowed the family to fall in arrears for months. But Hidayet, who believes his employer is too lenient, seizes the opportunity to confront Ismail over his son’s violent action.
The director of Winter Sleep, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is a sensational filmmaker, able to confidently place us almost instantaneously both in the geography of his story and also to persuade us of the authenticity of his characters’ lives. There is none of the schematic exposition that dogs contemporary popular cinema; no sense that he has to overtly signal his preoccupations and ideas.
Based loosely on the short stories and plays of Chekhov, the film explores the tensions of modernity, how traditional rural lives have been seismically altered by commerce and technology. Just as Moscow in Chekhov’s Three Sisters embodied both a place of longing and a place of anxiety, the characters in Winter Sleep are constantly referring to Istanbul, and one senses that the city – seemingly so remote from the brutal and ancient topography of their rural landscape – is also the centre of changes and politics that ultimately determine their lives.
Aydin lives in the hotel with his young wife, Nihal (Melisa Sözen), who is deeply unhappy in her marriage but can’t find the will to escape it. His sister, Necla (Demet Akbag), recently divorced, has returned to the village from Istanbul. These three characters are cognisant of their boredom and aware of their privilege: they know that it is fear of struggle, anxiety of money, that keeps them dependent on the privileges accruing from inherited wealth.
For Necla, this results in alternating between world-weary cynicism and an aggressive sprouting of righteous and incoherent ethical ideals. Nihal has chosen to devote herself to charity, working to provide education services for the rural poor, keeping her activities separate from a husband she has come to fear and abhor. Aydin writes a regular column for a local newspaper, a vehicle for him to express vacuous universalist sentiments when he is not using it as a forum to offload petty resentments and spites. What he promises himself is that one day he will complete a scholarly tome on the history of Turkish theatre.
Sloth must be one of the most difficult themes to explore in cinema. How do you depict torpor and laziness without the work itself becoming boring? Luis Buñuel, in The Milky Way and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, managed it with his gleeful anarchic wit, his daring blasphemy. But for all his talent, Ceylan, though not humourless, doesn’t seem to have the flair or temperament for comedy. And with nearly a three-hour-and-20-minute running length, he seems to have perversely insisted on making his task even more difficult. But trust me, the film does not drag. Part of Ceylan’s gift as a filmmaker is his ability to invest conversation with urgency, to make us feel present in
Winter Sleep is co-edited by Ceylan and Bora Göksingöl, as was Ceylan’s previous release, one of the great films of the past 10 years, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. This control over the editing is a phenomenal advantage in a filmmaker as technically proficient and as philosophically creative as Ceylan. The conversations in the film have real tension, the emotional and intellectual sparring equally precise and thus devastating, so the frame of the screen disappears and it is as if one is in the room thinking and responding with the characters. In particular, the scenes between brother and sister are remarkably charged; and, near the end, there is a devastating encounter between Nihal and Ismail that confronts all of us in the audience with the limits of our own self-belief in charity and transcendence. I was so taut and tense watching these scenes that I was not ever conscious of running time. In the best possible and surprising way, the film leaves you breathless.
The script, by Ceylan and his wife, Ebru Ceylan, is lean and intelligent. If the film falters it is only towards the end where one too many endings spoil the seamlessness of the construction. The cast is superlative. Bilginer, against the odds, finds moments of sympathy for what is a largely mean-spirited and deluded character. Akbag’s performance is particularly powerful, as is Serhat Mustafa Kiliç’s as Hamdi, Ismail’s imam brother. This man of faith, who is the only breadwinner for a large extended family, conveys chillingly the psychic cost of the obsequiousness that the rich still unthinkingly assume as their due. It is a deeply moving role.
Winter Sleep is rooted in the specifics of Turkish history and culture, as are all of Ceylan’s films, but its portrait of an entitled and delusional elite resonates for all of us. Aydin, Nihal and Necla are far from evil characters; they are recognisably human. The three of them believe that there is a place for goodness, and that it remains an ideal to strive for, whether they think of it in aesthetic, spiritual or ethical terms. Their blindness to ordeal and suffering, even when it is literally in front of their eyes, is also very human.
The film doesn’t let them off the hook, nor does it allow for complacency or smugness in the audience. In fact, it is that complacency and that smugness, alongside our own lethargy, that the film exposes.
If the lengthy running time makes you nervous, I suggest that you fight the sloth. Winter Sleep, which deservedly won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, is the best film now playing.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 29, 2014 as "The depth of winter". Subscribe here.