It’s been three weeks already since I saw Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest film and I have been itching to write my thoughts on it.
Following his Palme d’Or-winning Winter Sleep, we are faced once again with a family story, this time revolving around Sinan (Dogu Demirkol), a man in his twenties who has just finished his literature studies, and his relationship with his father (Murat Cemcir). In order to prepare for a national exam to become a teacher, he goes back to his family home in Çan, a few hours from Çanakkale, a coastal city in the West of Turkey. Çan is an isolated village with some industry in its surroundings that does not promise much success to young graduates, in particular men. While women are traditionally married young, men, who feel the pressure to provide, are faced with betting and living day by day, not knowing when work will come in. There are many scenes where Sinan enters cafes filled with nervous young men his age passively looking around.
We notice that Sinan feels somewhat superior and smarter than others. What’s more, his life ambition is to be a writer and write honestly about his home town, what it means to be from his region. He approaches the local mayor and a local businessman to ask for funding to publish his book, but either faces bureaucracy or lack of support. Why would someone want to read about local lives, why not just stick to what sells, Troy and the Battle of Çanakkale?
Returning home and running into his old friends, some of whom will soon have to choose between joining the military and the police force, has led Sinan into a depression, highlighted by a repeating soundtrack of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. He even tells an old female friend how he’d rather die than “rot in this hole”. She feels the same, but is soon to be married to an older man from the village. Before running away from him, she kisses him under a (wild pear?) tree and bites his lip so hard that he bleeds. What is moving is that despite him hating Çan, it leaves its marks on him (he is bruised through most of the film) and he needs the town if he wants to write about it.
Back home, his sister is a student, his mother tends to the home and his father, who is a teacher, has been gambling his money away, to the point of leaving the house without electricity one day in the middle of winter. He is also obsessed with finding water next to his cottage on the hill to build a well and is driving everyone crazy. When Sinan fails his teacher exam and has to contemplate his future, he is faced with who he is within this messy town.
But at over three hours, this film is not just about its story but about the encounters and conversations Sinan makes and has. Just like in Winter Sleep, there are long conversations between characters, and I will talk about three of them.
There is something I will call the very particular Turkish small talk. Even when a debate starts, or people are in disagreement, voices are not raised. Rather, respect for your elders and family reputation seems to always be on people’s minds.
The scene during which Sinan asks the mayor for his support must be at least ten minutes long, and does not lead anywhere in particular. Sinan schmoozes with the mayor and shows respect for his elder. While the mayor chats away and shows his enjoyment of Sinan’s manuscript, he is not ready to help the young writer and blames bureaucracy and funding. Here is one of many who seems to promise him success, only to let him down. The effect is comical, but more importantly the conversation is sensitively and truthfully written and needs every minute it takes.
The longest scene in the film takes place as Sinan is on his way back towards Çan from his father’s cottage. He encounters his two friends who are imams and proceeds to discuss the Koran with them as they walk down the hill together. The three men discuss new ways of understanding God and religion in today’s world based on what people need. It is a lot to take in, but all you want is more. One would say it takes guts to write scenes this long and philosophical, but I imagine it just being necessary for the director.
After struggling for a few weeks to find money to finance his book, Sinan comes into a few hundred lira after doing an immoral act. One day, he notices that the money, which he left in his jacket pocket, has disappeared. We immediately wonder whether the father, who has been needing money for his gambling, stole it. We never do find out the truth, and Sinan never dares to ask his father upfront, perhaps not wanting to shatter that last hope he has about him. The argument in the house as everyone looks for the money takes its time, the accusations and desperation flow, in another intimate and universal family scene.
Just like what Sinan wants to write in his book, this is about a man going through his daily life in today’s Turkey. Ceylan says he doesn’t want to be political, but the themes touched on in this film; work, youth, violence, depression, the future of the country, make it hard to ignore today’s climate. On the other hand, those grand topics don’t matter, as we just want to follow Sinan and his father, try to guess what it would have been like if he had succeeded in his exam, or sold a few copies of his book. The film ends with hope, a hope that family only can bring, and the inevitable feeling of time passing. And as with Winter Sleep, you can be the meanest person to your relative, but they are not going anywhere. They are the ones who look you deepest in the eyes.