Climates and Other Disasters: Robin Wood on the Films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Wood, Robin, Artforum International
KYOKO: Life is disappointing, isn't it? NORIKO: Yes, it is. --from Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953)
CERTAINLY AMONG THE HALF-DOZEN FINEST FILMS of the past few years, Climates definitively establishes the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan as a major presence within contemporary world cinema. Premiering at Cannes last May and making its US debut at the New York Film Festival last month, Climates, Ceylan's fourth feature, is currently enjoying a limited theatrical release. His previous three feature-length films--The Small Town (1997), Clouds of May (1999), and Distant (2002)--are all available on DVD.
While each has its own distinct tone, thematic, and look, the four films add up to a coherent, and complex, oeuvre, the mark of a major artist; there is no repetition but, rather, a mutually suggestive interrelationship. Most obviously, the films fall into two pairs, the first two (The Small Town, Clouds of May) set in the country, the two more recent ones concerned with city life and set in Istanbul, either entirely (Distant) or centrally (Climates). The first two are centered on the family, the second pair on the couple. Clouds of May and Distant are, in turn, connected by a reversal: In the former, a city man revisits the country of his childhood; in the latter, a countryman moves to the city.
The first three films are also connected by the presence of two actors--Muzaffer Ozdemir and Mehmet Emin Toprak--who become increasingly essential to the films' worlds. Ozdemir has a brief appearance in the opening sequence of The Small Town as a mentally handicapped man laughed at by the village children when he falls in the snow; he plays the central character in Clouds of May (the son, now a documentary filmmaker, who returns from the city to film his parents); and he costars (in what is in obvious ways a continuance of the same role, cast in a decidedly less sympathetic light) with Toprak in Distant. Toprak, for his part, has a leading role in all three films, always playing a countryman. In the first two he feels trapped in the narrowness and stagnation of village life and determines to leave, a desire realized in Distant, in which he comes to live in Istanbul with his relative the documentarian.
The films neither sentimentalize the country nor glorify the city. The characters are presented both sympathetically and critically. If the first three films are strikingly male-centered, this is amply compensated for by Climates. But what is so striking about the four films is that there are no "happy endings": No one, in any of the films, gets what he or she wants, and this pervasive lack is very closely tied both to social conditions and to the possibility of some deeper, all-pervasive and fundamental unsatisfactoriness in the realities of human existence, a kind of existential malaise. The films, then, might be said to explore that gray area where the social merges with the existential. And for this reason Ozu's (or screenwriter Kogo Noda's?) famous exchange came to seem, for all the distance of time and place, a productive way to open this essay, an exploratory consideration of a great new filmmaker: Are we unhappy because of specific social conditions, Ceylan repeatedly asks, or because of some deeper, less definable unsatisfactoriness in the very foundations of human existence?
In The Small Town, Ceylan introduces us to rural Turkey (not, fundamentally, much unlike rural America) with a sequence of stationary shots of snowy streets, the local mosque, parked trucks, and stray dogs, during which we come to hear children declaiming, at first offscreen, "... respect my elders ... love my homeland." Finally, we see the children outside the school door reciting their daily litany before they are let in from the cold--"My ideal is to rise, to progress.... I surrender my being to that of Turkey. …