“Watch an award winning film? You want me to gawk at some old codger limping across the screen in super slow motion? In total silence and dismal light?” my indignant friend exclaimed, “Give me "Kochadaiyan" anyday!”
Aghast at my burning desire to see Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Winter Sleep” (Palm d’Or winner, Cannes, 2014) she declared, “The very name guarantees sedation. Oh my god, inspired by Russian heavyweights did you say? Let me tell you, when a director claims his three-and-a-half-hour epic is about 'everything and nothing', you know he simply means 'never ending'!” Her tirade ended in a chuckle. “Didn’t a Cannes Jury member demand a toilet break?”
After this, I could hardly confess to being spellbound by Ceylan since my first encounter with the Turkish auteur’s oeuvre at the Cinefan festival (New Delhi, 2003), where he introduced his film “Uzak” (Distant) with these ominous words: “My film is long and slow… Hope you are not sleepy.”
He was right to warn us about the tortured pace. But my initial yawns turned to breathless attention as I watched misanthropic photographer Mahmut, bonding skills at zero, being forced by traditional custom to take in a hick cousin as house guest. Mahmut’s ex-wife migrates to Canada, saying something so simple that you don’t realise how soul-searing it is: “It is really hard when you don’t have much to leave behind.” At the end (those of us who remained awake) saw Mahmut on the seafront, smoking in inscrutable silence. Ceylan leaves you with an emotion you don’t quite know how to handle. Especially as you suspect that the film is some kind of oblique autobiography.
I ask myself -- how does the man manage to convey so much with so little? God knows the story of his “Three Monkeys” is nothing to write home about. Politician Servet unwittingly kills a man, and bribes his driver to take the blame. The driver returns from prison to find his wife having an affair with his boss, his son running wild.
So what made these commonplace episodes turn into an eerie blend of the austere and the sensual? The inversion of the title image? We know that the Gandhian monkeys shun evil. But Ceylan’s monkeys practise evil in stealth, hoard ugly secrets. They refuse to see, hear or speak the truth. The grim, glacial camera tracks their guilt and creates a mirror effect, reflecting guilt everywhere. Ceylan’s dharmic inflexibility makes self-deception impossible for the film maker, character and viewer.
The Iranian genius Abbas Kiarostami once disclosed that he liked films which made him doze, because later, they continued to haunt his mind in action replays. I knew what Kiarostami meant when I recalled Ceylan saying to me in a long-ago interview, that his ambling pace was instinctive, not a cultivated mannerism. “The pace of my soul is very slow, maybe... If you are slow, perhaps you can show something you can't, otherwise. A part of reality is hidden in the slowness of life.”
No surprise then that in real life, the Turkish filmmaker has what Julius Caesar stigmatized as dangerous - the lean and hungry look of someone who thinks too much. His cinema is as much about what is hidden in the human psyche as it is about metaphysical broodings. He lingers on every detail, heeds each microtone.
Waiting for “Winter Sleep” I wonder: do we need our artists to slow us down as we hurtle along helterskelter, show us a nook where we can pause... doze... and suddenly discover “nothing and everything?” Is this then the transcendence of art? The real magic of art?
The author is a playwright, theatre director, musician and journalist, writing on performing arts, cinema and literature