Sunday, December 21, 2014

Review: Winter Sleep

Image courtesy of Adopt Films.
The films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan need some easing into and, I hate to say this, "Winter Sleep" might not be the place to start for the uninitiated. That being said, this three-hour-and-16-minute opus of relationships gone sour and ponderings on the nature of good and wrongdoing is a mesmerizing trip for those willing to put in the time.

The film, which won the Palm d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, is only the Turkish director's seventh feature and the fifth to screen in the United States, but it already feels as if Ceylan is one of the world's most significant filmmakers who brings with him his own patient style and, frequently, dazzling visuals.

His previous film, "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia," remains my favorite of his films, but "Winter Sleep" is likely his second best picture. Set in the cold, isolated Turkish steppes, the film observes - and I use that word since the camera is often used as a device perched in a room, watching conversations play out over long periods of time - Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a former actor turned writer who operates a lonely hotel on a desolate mountain. Living with him are his significantly younger wife Nihal (Melissa Sozen) and sister Necla (Demet Akbag).

The film opens with an intense scene during which Aydin's hotel manager, Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), gets into a fierce squabble with a man and his family who are long overdue on their rent to Aydin. This scene leaves repercussions throughout the rest of the story, leading to an act late in the film involving Nihal and the surliest member of the family in debt that might make you gasp, not because of any act of violence, but, well, you'll see.

Aside from some gorgeous shots of Aydin hunting with a friend and a man roping a horse, much of "Winter Sleep" is set indoors. It's what you might call a chamber(s) piece. And a majority of the film is centered around dialogue and conversations, most of which begin harmlessly enough but end with the film's characters regretting what they've said to each other.

The first of such talks takes place between Aydin and Necla. She looks down on his writing, which is primarily what you might call "think pieces" for local newspapers, which Necla thinks it's a waste of time. Aydin resents his sister's "laziness" and their conversation soon turns ugly. Later, a similar discussion between Aydin and his wife concerning her involvement in a group that donates to local schools betrays their fraught relationship.

It's the dialogue that drives the film, which is set over the course of only a few days, despite the movie's epic length. All of the anguished talking between the characters leads to a dark night of the soul for at least two of them, whom we are led to believe may or may not eventually reach some sort of reconciliation.

"Winter Sleep" is not an easy film - that is, there's a lot to wade through and its purposes aren't always completely clear. I don't mean that as a criticism, but rather to imply that Ceylan's films present you with material that you have to sort out yourself and some past comparisons between his work and that of Michelangelo Antonioni aren't off base. This is a powerful, visually beautiful, very well acted and thoughtful film. Those who make a point of seeing the best offerings of world cinema won't want to miss it.

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