For the most part I no longer follow world cinema. I assume that it is a moribund art, both because of the rise of new technologies, and in consequence of the highly globalized system of financing, which ensures that any film that comes out of an under-heard-from part of the world will invariably have the imprimatur of the film boards of two or three developed nations, each of which have long since adopted the film stocks and the conventions of what we still call 'Hollywood'. If I have any gaps in my knowledge of world cinema, and any time at all to fill them in, I always prioritize films made prior to 1980, and whose canonical or at least novelty status is more or less solidified.
One of the few exceptions to this general rule is the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who made his first full-length film in 1995, and who conceives of his own film-making, against the spirit of the age, as an attempt to transmit a distinct aesthetic vision (another is the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose 2004 Tropical Malady I hope I'll have a chance to discuss here soon). I first saw Ceylan's Uzak [Distant] in Istanbul in 2003. It concerns an urban, educated man, divorced and lonely, whose peasant cousin comes to stay with him in the city in order to look for work. That is pretty much the entire story, though it says next to nothing about the film. Uzak, like its successor, the 2006 Iklimler [Climates], is primarily about the weather, or rather about the indifference of the cycles of nature to the futile efforts human beings make to claw their way out of misery and loneliness.
Art and religion figure in Ceylan's world, but only in the background. For me the most striking scene in any of his films occurs in Uzak, when the cousin of refined tastes forces his relative to sit with him in the living room and to watch Tarkovsky's Stalker. When the yokel finally gives up and goes off to bed, the aesthete immediately gets up and switches from cinéma d'auteur to porn. Occasionally people go to mosques and ruins, but only to take pictures, that is, to make art they no longer believe in, or simply to wait outside while someone else goes in to do his business.
Last night I finally saw Ceylan's Üç maymun [Three Monkeys] of 2008. I could not find any excerpts from the film itself online. The trailer does not really represent it all that faithfully, as it comes across looking rather more like one of those Japanese horror films I've never seen, and less like a faithful psychological portrait of desperate people (with only the slightest, and ever-so-interpetrable trace of supernatural intervention). The film is visually the most striking of the three I've seen, though perhaps occasionally Gökhan Tiryaki's cinematography crosses over into an unsatisfying hyperrealism in its compositions of landscape, the sky, and the Bosphorus.
Unlike the other films, Üç maymun seems preoccupied with the question of Turkishness, and the passions that are inflamed and that lead to domestic violence and to murder, one senses, could all have been easily avoided if the culture were just a little less possessive of its women. The husband has a moustache and a barrel-build that radiate patriarchal dominion, and the teenage son's feeble attempt, over the course of the film, to emulate his father's facial hair signals, to me anyway, the inescapable, eternal return of the patterns of traditional culture across generations.
One thing that is remarkable is how much the violent sex between upper-class lovers in Iklimler (I have in mind the scene with the chick pea) appears, now, as a sort of study for the violent non-sex between working-class husband and wife in Üç maymun. However context-specific Ceylan's focus is in the latest film, I mean, he seems to see the suffering in it mostly as one instance of a generally desperate human predicament. Chekhov comes to mind (I'm sure he does for Ceylan, too), but in Ceylan there does not seem to be much interest in tracing back the blame for human misery to various social and political injustices. Members of the upper class are empty shells of human beings, but nature wouldn't care if they weren't. Üç maymun ends with a thunderstorm, just like Uzak ended with waves hitting the coast: not as a mirror or an echo of human events, but as a reminder of their littleness.
[Sunday Cinema, #14]