It has become increasingly easy to watch movies at home today, which is both awesome and troublesome at the same time. All to often I hear people say “I don’t bother to go to the theater anymore unless it’s a ‘big’ movie that ‘has’ to be seen on the big screen” and it really bums me out. Movies that are filled with special effects and booming sound effects are certainly more enjoyable on the big screen but that is far from the only reason to see a movie in theaters. One of the biggest advantage of a movie theater is the lack of distraction. All too often I’ll try to watch some cinema classic or another on Blu-ray only to guiltily find myself pausing it three or four times to compulsively check my e-mail or listen to some song that pops into my head or something. The modern world has really done a number on our attention spans and home video has been a real enabler in this. Yeah, there’s some chance that any given screening at a movie theater might be marred by some jerk with a cell phone, odd are that doesn’t really compare with the self-inflicted distractions inherent in home viewing. That’s why I was so excited to see director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest film, Winter Sleep, in a theater. The other two Ceylan films I’ve seen, Climates and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, were both experienced through home viewings that were marred by all the usual problems associated with watching something at home and I had a strong hunch that seeing one of his films in a theater environment would really make it click.
The film is set in a small town in the mountainous Cappadocia region of Anatolia and focuses on a wealthy middle aged man named Aydın (Haluk Bilginer) who owns the area hotel and also owns a number of homes in the village that he rents out to locals. At the moment he’s living with his wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), who’s a good thirty years his junior, and his recently divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbağ). The film opens with Aydın and his right hand man Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan) getting into a conflict with a tenant named İsmail (Nejat İşler) who is behind on his rent and whose son Ilyas (Emirhan Doruktutan) recently through a rock at Aydın’s car. İsmail’s brother Hamdi (Serhat Kılıç), who is the local Imam, tries to mediate the conflict and it ends in a rather inconclusive way. This conflict will be put on the backburner for a little while but won’t go away and in many ways brings out a number of things between Aydın and the people around him that will alter his status quo in life.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan is often listed next to the likes of Béla Tarr and Apichatpong Weerasethakul as one of the really “out there” foreign filmmakers who mainly appeal to the most dedicated of cinephilles. What jumps out at me about the three films he’s made so far is just how different they all are from each other even while maintaining a fairly similar tone and aesthetic. His 2006 film Climates had kind of a meta feel to it, almost like something Abbas Kiarostami would make whereas his 2011 film Once Upon A Time in Anatolia was more like an ethereal mood piece which focused on landscapes and minimalist interactions. Winter Sleep, by contrast, is a much talkier movie and at times almost resembles a stage play with its long meaningful conversations, which seems like a deliberate choice given the main character’s interest in the theater. As such I think this is easily the most accessible of his movies, at least of the ones I’ve seen. That’s not to say that this isn’t also a very cinematic movie. The scenery is very picturesque and Ceylan also shoots the film excellently, especially in certain scenes that seem to be largely lit by fireplaces.
On its most basic level, Winter Sleep is a character study about Aydın, who is a multifaceted and fascinating person. He fancies himself to be a renascence man and a pillar of his community. He seems to have more or less inherited most of his wealth and property and has subordinates doing most of his dirty work, and as such he’s dedicated himself to reading and writing. In particular, he writes weekly columns for a local newspaper and believes that they are widely appreciated by the townsfolk. His actual interactions with most people are riddled with a sort of passive aggression and condescension, but it isn’t entirely clear how much he is aware of this. This is pretty well established in the opening conflict with İsmail who he approaches along with his hired man, and outlines his grievance. He never comes out and demands that İsmail pay for his broken window but he does stand there expecting an answer and it’s more than implied that this is what he wants even if he insists that he doesn’t. His interactions with his friends and family are not too different and this comes to a head later on in the film.
At its heart this is a movie about class differences. On a global and national level I don’t think Aydın would come close to counting as a one percenter, but within his local community he is, and this colors most of his interactions. The whole wealth inequality issue often either doesn’t show up onscreen or shows up in a simplistic way that vilifies one side or the other. This depiction is a lot more complex and humanistic. The film doesn’t pardon Aydın for his behavior but it’s also sympathetic to how he’s become the way he is and how he may not quite have the degree of self-awareness necessary to really see how empty his kind gestures really are. They movie also shies away from forgiving his wife, who wants to be one of “the good” rich people with her charity work but can be just as condescending to people in her own way.
Winter Sleep won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes film festival which was widely seen as a well-deserved recognition for Ceylan’s accomplishments within world cinema. That makes perfect sense, but as stated before this is kind of a departure for Ceylan, at least on a narrative level. Where his previous two films seemed a little too detached and cerebral for me to really get a grip on, this was one film that I could really embrace without reservation. The film does this without dumbing down Ceylan’s usual material or abandoning what made his previous films so interesting. In fact this may be the Rosetta Stone that makes those previous films make more sense to me. But let’s step away from the auteur analysis; Winter Sleep works quite well simply as a piece of literature. Its characters are really well drawn and developed and there’s a very wise insight into human behavior on display in the way they interact. This is the kind of movie that really makes you wonder why we waste out time on so much dreck day in and day out.
**** out of Four