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This article was written on 18 Jan 2015, and is filled under Film & TV.

The Cinema of Deliberation: Ceylan’s “Winter Sleep”

Like all great works of cinema, the current feature, “Winter Sleep,” by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (screenplay with Ebru Ceylan), is both an open sesame to a very local ecology, Cappadocio, that through the auratic transformations of narrative becomes a “center of enchantment.” And it is a medium for socio-cultural and ethical issues on a far vaster, one is tempted to say “human” scale.

“Winter Sleep” is at once an update on current fissures—between global cities and local economies, the ruling elite and the underclasses, theocracy and secularization, and in the division of labor between the genders, in contemporary Turkey. But rare in its deliberation and open-endedness, it is also a meditation on the flow of experience and the intensities of time as undergone by different generations. At the core of this film is the love between local eminence Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) and his much younger wife, Nihal (Melisa Sözen), a seeming misalliance managing to persist even as both parties are forced to recalibrate long-standing attitudes.

All telling anomalies and socio-cultural tensions that the film tracks eventually get played out on the “screen” of Aydin’s character. This is a Falstaffian personality (no accident that the hotel he runs, dug out of the local volcanic rock, is the “Otello”). Not only is Aydin an affable hotelier, having inherited the establishment from his father, but, having also spent 25 years on the stage (and having avoided the soaps), he is an obsessive theater buff. And to top this off, he is a local pundit, dispensing aesthetic judgment and moral pith in his weekly column for the local paper. When we meet him, he is arranging that a wild Anatolian horse be corralled and installed at the hotel, the better to accord with the hotel’s website.

While Aydin’s enterprises have succeeded notably, he conducts them indirectly, through the lawyers and intercession of his assistant in all things, Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcar). It is, then, an inbuilt split between detachment, intellectual as well as managerial, and empathic involvement that becomes the fingerprint of Aydin’s familial relations and his business and other interpersonal dealings. His best hours are spent in his free standing study, whose volcanic walls and niches are adorned with theater memorabilia and modern European art, where he bangs out his preachy columns and receives guests. Chief among these is surely his sister, Necla (Demet Akbag), a true philosopher in the sway and rigor she affords her thinking. She is back in the family’s Anatolian base-camp after being educated abroad and the breakup of her marriage.

What gives this film no small measure of its distinction is the wide-ranging debates in which Aydin engages with the two dominant women in his life, his wife as well as his sister. In a chiaroscuro visual style conveying the feel of dugout stone architecture in winter, the film pauses, philosophically as well as visually, over intimate conversation in a way rare for the medium. In addition to Shakespeare, obvious intellectual influences include Plato (his study is Aydin’s Cave), Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Strindberg, and Ibsen. Time, but not thinking, stands still during the artfully lit-up close-ups signaling the care and commitment of the characters’ thoughts.

The question that Necla raises and that spills into Aydin’s charged relations to his tenants as well as his wife is the cost of “not resisting evil,” remaining indifferent to the world’s entropy toward corruption. Necla has the audacity to advance—and this sparks pitched incredulity by Aydin and at first by Nihal—a “complementary” (after Bateson) approach to wrongdoing with Ghandian overtones. The virtue of not countering evil with recrimination and/or censure, argues Necla, is creating a margin for self-correction and transcendence on the part of the offender. Aydin may mock this conjecture, but the sheer depth with which it is elaborated in discussion marks a highpoint for current feature-length cinema.

The seemingly offhand debate is the fulcrum defining the film’s two ongoing (and closely intertwined) sources of dramatic tension: the ongoing skirmish between Aydin and his tenants (their TV and refrigerator have already been repossessed), erupting when a boy smashes the passenger-side window of his all-terrain vehicle; and his attitudinal differences with Nihal, over such issues as local charity.

Indeed, the primary narrative thread through the film is Aydin’s relations with his failing tenants. Like the hotel, he has inherited them from his father, but in this generation, they have fallen on hard times. The younger brother, Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç), a village imam, must struggle at a second job in order to make ends meet. Like other characters we meet, and perhaps signaling a wider lack of sexual opportunity in the society at large, he’s never had the wherewithal to get married. In addition, he supports his older brother, Ismail (Nejat Isler), who has done time in prison and remains unemployed, and his wife, Sevda, and son. It is this son, Ilyas, who wrenches the plot into motion by totaling the humvee’s window with a rock. The encounter with the extended Hamdi family intensified by this incident is conducted not by Aydin but by his business-manager, who eagerly steps in. The role he projects toward the family is that of a complacent bureaucrat. The combination of noblesse oblige and hands-off detachment with which Aydin engages the world around him is thus marked in the film’s initial detailed encounter. The sustained double-message imbued within Aydin’s very social profile is what alienates his wife and sister from him (in the latter case, terminally). It becomes the basis for the remediation, just before it’s too late, that he eventually takes. But until his back is against the wall, Aydin responds to painful or delicate situations (such as Ilyas’s penance) with the dismissive laughter of incredulity.

Aydin is not a happy camper when Nihal informs him that she is, on her own and without seeking prior approval, spearheading a local grassroots campaign to upgrade the schools in the surrounding villages. Aydin simply cannot grasp why such an endeavor doesn’t pass through his hands. He is oblivious to the suspicion in which he is held for some of his high-handed business practices. Nihal becomes furious at him, both for his residual paternalism and his overall obtuseness. This is the moment in the film when Aydin’s overall forthrightness seems to founder upon deep-seeded (and male-gendered) privilege.

In the meantime, Nihal has taken it upon herself to save the Hamdi family with the large wad of money that Aydin has forced upon her and the campaign. It falls to Ilyas’s father, Ismail, in a tour de force display of acting by Isler, to give voice to society’s beneficiaries when high-minded acts of charity are lavished upon them. Nihal is devastated by this inconceivable repudiation.

Aydin emerges both from the reproaches of his significant “female others” and from his personal stock-taking a “sadder but wiser man,” the savoir faire of a man on the verge of his “winter sleep.” This utterly mature and wise film has, along the way, lavished us with an unrelenting stream of striking vignettes: the Anatolian horse in submission after having been doused in a raging stream; Hamdi’s perpetually accommodating smile and placating behavior; Emirhan Doruktutan’s virtuoso performance as Ilyas, child of misfortune: his face a transparent weather-map to the hard climate of his moods.

A notable and growing literature of films from Turkey and Iran will not allow us to forget the sheer modulation of human understanding and the responsiveness of local communities and their institutions prevailing within these societies. “Winter Sleep,” in the deliberation and delicacy with which controversial matters are broached, is indeed in good company: The work of Pelin Esmer (“Watchtower,” 2012); Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation,” 2111; “About Elly,” 2009); Majid Majidi (“Baran,” 2001); and Abbas Kiarostami (“The Wind Will Carry Us,” 1999; “A Taste of Cherry,” 1997) comes immediately to mind. We can thank such films for complicating the stereotypes regularly applied to the Muslim societies of the region, whether as terrorist training camps or in hopeless thrall to religious fundamentalism.

Even in “Winter Sleep’s” Anatolia, the venerable Turkish heartland, the gradations of class-interest as they impact upon the social fabric are plain for all to see—and assimilate. Sexual and social repression are a powerful ingredient in the mix, but aren’t they–everywhere? Hothead Ismail is reduced to stabbing a rowdy for joking about his wife’s underwear—an event less likely in a more sexually enlightened milieu. And Hamdi’s first aid in cushioning the harsh realities of village life is hardly more than a primer of religious truisms. But the core issues—traditional society or modernism; urban versus rural lifestyles; going abroad for education or hanging in locally; marriage or divorce—are by no means resolved by the society configured by this film. They are, rather, in ongoing flux. Indeed, even amid the sparse demographics of Cappadocio, there is a full complement of social, professional, and commercial interests to mediate these divisive issues and deliberate on them.

In terms of raising these persistent social tensions and the debate they spark to a level of philosophical deliberation, Aydin’s women, Necla and Nihal, are the film’s showpieces. The film in no way obscures the conditions under which these rich, multidimensional characters remain the wards of overarching social paternalism. But this in no way preempts them from deliberating and even plotting to implement the counter-narrative to the one in which all authority and accountability pass through Aydin.

Honor and its codes remains an often unspoken but always pervasive catalyst for dissension in the film. At the same time, the cordiality and tolerance enabling diverse lifestyles and world-views to coexist and complement one another are, nonetheless, hard-wired to codes of honor in this film. Ismail’s descent to incarceration and subsequent unemployment begins with an affront to his wife’s honor. It is his family’s loss of standing attendant to these legal problems that Ilyas signals through his delinquent act to Aydin’s vehicle. When Ilyas seeks to restore his own honor through an act of contrition, having slogged 10 km. through the mud on the way to the grand patron, Aydin defuses the delicate situation with his visceral laughter.

Honor is a most edgy matter within the society simulated by this luminous film. Proliferating codes of honor, to the point of overlapping and over-determination, indeed engender social minefields—particularly in an age placing a premium on the speed and ease of all transactions. But the systematic dismissal of a value that has accorded so much in the way of social responsibility, ethical sensibility, and deliberation to near-eastern Muslim societies is a miscalculation for which there is simply no place at a moment when we pride ourselves on the precision of all computation.

Flex and adaptability are the crowning achievements of wisdom and maturity. Aydin’s attentiveness, even if sometimes begrudging, to his own impact on the social ecology around him, even when this footprint is extractive, is what saves his marriage and renews his active membership in his community. Wisdom and exquisite trans-personal sensibility prevail in this artwork, where cinema repeatedly rises to the challenge of thinking.

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