“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”
--- Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
The new magisterial film, “Winter Sleep” (2014) from the masterful Turkish film-maker Nure Bilge Ceylan explores one such unhappy family, whose dilemmas and lives rings true and universal. It is a meditation on a marriage and human soul that’s as honest, intense, and brutal like an Ingmar Bergman movie. Ceylan’s previous masterpiece “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” earned the adjective ‘Chekovian’ for the way he incorporated the issues of class, history, property into a simple crime scene investigation. Now he has written the script for “Winter Sleep” based upon two stories of Anton Chekov: “Excellent People”, and “The Wife”. Shakespeare also inhabits the movie in those elaborate, complex, and powerful dialogues. In fact this is the first time Ceylan employs challenging long dialogue scenes, but the brazen, intimate framing keeps it from looking like a play.
“Winter Sleep” is set in the chilly, mountain desert of the remotest Cappadocia, a land of cave dwellings, situated in Central Anatolia. The grey boulders, mushroom-shaped caves, rocks, the snowfall, and wild ponies thundering across land scream the word ‘picturesque’. But since this being a Ceylan’s work, the beautiful, isolated landscape serves to symbolize things (not for panoramic shots), like that of the first snowfall that represents a change of atmosphere. A baronial grey-haired former actor and local landlord, Mr. Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) is the story’s protagonist. He has converted the cave-dwellings into a trendy hotel ‘Othello’. As winter is arriving, most of the tourists depart from hotel and something familiar to Aydin and his family comes to haunt them: vanity, self-deception, and yearning.
Aydin seems to have returned to his home village after his retirement. He spends most of his time in the study, surrounded by books. He writes a column on art and social morality for the local newspaper, and also doing research to write a book on the History of Turkish Theatre. Aydin also fancies himself as a small-time philosopher, but his inherent self-deception and arrogance is picked up apart by two women in the family; his younger lovely wife, Nihal (Melisa Sozen) and cynical, recently divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbag). Aydin and his wife live separately in their own part of the house. He ridicules her charity work and she hates his hypocritical insights.
But, all these unpleasant conflicts rise to the surface due to an unconnected event. A free-spirited traveler and a hotel guest ask Aydin whether he has any horses because he has seen some in the hotel’s website. Aydin replies, “It’s just to decorate the website”. But the little conversation incites Aydin to buy a pony. He takes his driver and enforcer, Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan) to make a deal for a horse. And as they drive off in their land rover, a stone lands off in their windshield which nearly leads to an accident. The stone is thrown by a small boy, Ilyas (Emirhan Doruktutan), whose father was an ex-con Ismail (Nejat Isler). Ismail is one of Aydins’s deadbeat tenants, who was beaten and humiliated by the debt collectors. Aydin captures the boy and sends Hidayet to have reasonable talk with the father. However, Ismail angrily rants and accuses them of deliberately humiliating him. That unpleasant event makes Aydin to retreat to his solitude hotel, but more figurative rocks are hurled at him there.
‘Why should I care about a group of Turkish elitist and narcissist?’ was one of the things that may come to our mind after reading the plot and Olympian running time. Patient movie-viewers must watch it because Ceylan makes us care, like any great literary artist, by keeping the characters multi-dimensional and honest. Their awfulness and awkwardness are portrayed in a manner which makes us compare it with our own character traits. Failing marriage and cynicism of rich towards poor are the two vital themes that run throughout the movie. But these themes aren’t driven home through convenient good/bad human forms. There’s a pivotal scene between Aydin, who sits at his desk writing a column, and his sister Necla, who sits behind him in a sofa and starts discussing about her brother’s columns. She rips apart at Aydin’s irritating and hypocritical values towards their dead-beat tenants. Necla condemns him for cynicism, which as it turns out (through her not resisting evil speech) she also possesses.
Aydin replies to Necla using strong, hurtful words and also turns onto his wife, who also is enshrouded in hypocrisy. For Nihal, the charity is an outlet for her passions and dreams. Its one area where she has full autonomy, but that too is threatened with Aydin’s intrusion. In another lengthy scene, Nihal and Aydin bicker back-and-forth about their contradictory nature, but the conversation is once again relevatory and hits on targets. Nihal perfectly analyses her husband’s behavior, but she has her own faults: like thinking that philanthropic gifts would solve every problem; or holding immense animosity towards Aydin, but isn’t ready to get a divorce, fearing that it may uproot her from the luxurious life. Ceylan perfectly calibrates these two crucial, verbose scenes without making it seem theatrical or laborious.
Another interesting aspect of the movie is the way Ceylan tosses up the characters and lets us know how they react in different places. We could empathize with Nihal as her husband threatens to take away the only happiness she has left. But, later she somehow insults Ismail by offering him a wad of money to solve the debt problems. Ismail’s shocking reaction makes her to face her own ignorance and places values like pride over the power of money. Rationally, Ismail’s act may seem stupid, but it liberates him from all his past humiliations. On the other hand, we hate Aydin for his obnoxiousness and derisive laughs. Nevertheless, he is like the Shakespearean hero, whom we can’t help but pity him.
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Although the landscape plays a key role, Ceylan and his cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki keeps a tight rein on showcasing the backgrounds. The firelight interiors and the intimate, artistic compositions deserve a separate, full-blown analysis (it would be a futile attempt for me to do such analysis after viewing the movie only once). The long dialogues would have never had such a great impact, if not for the professional actors like Solzen and Bilginer.
“Winter Sleep” (196 minutes) is the kind of rare cinema that interweaves various forms of art and makes observations that have a more universal appeal. It provides startling epiphanies without any tidy resolutions.