Wednesday, December 2, 2009


This is my belated first stop in Turkey since I started my tour of the wild world of cinema last year. It was going to be this film or Tarkan Versus the Vikings -- and I will get to that one eventually. That's probably more along the lines of what people think of when they think of Turkish cinema, along with buccaneering copyright infringement and cargo-cult like recreations of western genre tropes. But serious Turkish cinema has occasionally demanded recognition, and it's only reasonable that Turkey should have some cinematic counterpart of Orhan Pamuk, the nation's Nobel-winning novelist (whose Snow would make quite a cool movie -- no pun intended). Right now the leading claimant for that position is Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who won the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival for this picture, the sixth of his career and the third to make a strong international impression following Distant (2002) and Climates (2006).

The box copy for Zeitgeist Video's DVD pitches Three Monkeys as a kind of film noir, and a bare description of the plot won't exactly prove them wrong. The title refers to the iconic trio of "See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil," and while Ceylan and his co-writer/spouse Ebru Ceylan don't assign specific dysfunctions to the members of the Ozturk family, this unhappy trio appears to have all the bases covered. Ezup, the father, is a chauffeur and stooge for Servet, a struggling politician who dozes at the wheel one night and runs someone over, then runs from the scene. Servet convinces Ezup to take the rap for him, promising that he'll serve six months at most while his family will be well compensated. It ends up being a year, and during that time Servet has an affair with Hacer, Ezup's wife. Meanwhile, young Ismail's life spirals out of control as he falls in with a gang and gets his ass kicked offscreen in a bloody rumble. An accident allows Ismail to discover his mom's dalliance. He smacks her around a bit but lacks the courage to tell his dad, who has his suspicions anyway. Once Ezup's out of jail Servet calls a quick halt to the affair, but Hacer has fallen hard for him, obsessively so, in spite of his threat to kill her if she keeps it up. But it's Servet who ends up dead, leaving us with a little murder mystery for the final act of the film.

Ismail (Rifat Singar) confronts his mother Hacer (Hatice Aslan) in their realistically cramped yet impeccably art-directed apartment.

On this evidence, Ceylan is a rigorous director whose work demands close attention. His images are composed rather than stylized, and painstakingly so in order to to sustain an illusion of social realism and everyday activity. Sometimes he goes pictorially overboard with portentous skyscapes, but that's still consistent with his use of landscape and atmosphere to evoke mood. Our surroundings often take on a more dramatic aspect in times of anxiety or other profound emotions, and for the most part Ceylan's patient long-take compositions achieve that subjective effect without going overboard.

Samples of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's compositions, with cinematography by Gokan Tiryaki.

The long takes also direct our attention to the emotional activity in his actor's faces. He sets the rule in the first scene of the film: a long shot of Servet driving through the night and struggling to stay awake. Ercan Kesel nails the challenge of working with his eyes alone. Elsewhere, you can always see the wheels turning in characters' minds. This is important because the Ceylans are concerned with their struggles to cope with undesirable revelations. None of the characters want to deal with the moral implications of their actions or inaction. All the Ozturks are complicit in a cover-up, after all, and it just comes naturally for them to cover things up from one another. Sometimes they simply don't want to accept what's happening. At one point Hacer seems ready to commit suicide. Eyup sees her crouch on a rooftop ledge, flees from the scene a short distance and stands there, clearly going through some moral agony but apparently incapable for some time of even asking her not to jump. This is one of several scenes in which Yavuz Bingol shines, and all the principals have moments of that kind. Rifat Singar as Ismail has a particularly eerie moment when we can see the transition from real time to dream time as a bead of sweat starts to run up the kid's forehead.

And there's a ghost.

Despite reassuring visits to the cemetery the dead don't seem to stay buried in Three Monkeys.

Ismail had a younger brother once who puts in occasional reappearances, popping in as if from a J-Horror film. Intriguingly, the Ceylans never tell us how this boy died, though we can safely assume that he drowned. It may have had something to do with a father-sons day out, because Ismail and Eyup both see the ghost, but Hacer doesn't. In any event, the ghost is just one of the details that hint at the dark intimate history of the Ozturk family, and it's enough for us to understand that there are unspoken issues (in keeping with the three-monkeys theme) without having them all spelled out.

I was impressed by Three Monkeys, and since I've been given the impression that it's not as good as Distant and Climates I'm now looking forward to seeing those. The Albany Public Library has Climates as well as this title, so you can expect a review of that earlier effort sometime in the New Year. For now, take a look at the Three Monkeys trailer, uploaded to YouTube by beno852:

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