It’s always dangerous to draw assumptions about other cultures based on what might generally be labelled “artistic” as opposed to “popular” cultural output. Books and films loved by the literati are often shunned by the masses, and while folks like Nobel Prize–winning author Orhan Pamuk and film festival favorite Nuri Bilge Ceylan would seem to be exemplary and unique ambassadors of contemporary Turkish culture, their works paint a picture of Turkey and Turkish mores far different than the bits and snatches of the country’s more lurid popular cinema I’ve had the opportunity to come across (i.e. Mustafa Altioklar’s tawdry box-office smash Istanbul Beneath My Wings). Films from Fatih Akin (The Edge of Heaven) and Ferzan Ozpatek (Steam: The Turkish Bath) complicate matters further in that both straddle binational identities and filmmaking (Italian for Ozpatek and German for Akin) and have accordingly found wider audiences here and in Europe by hewing more closely to the standard set by middle-of-the-road government funded Europudding.
Whether Ceylan speaks of or for Turkey is open for debate, but what’s remarkable about his fifth feature, Three Monkeys, is how he stamps a fairly straightforward genre piece with the marks of his own artistry. That may well be all we can really ask for in a filmmaker, and I’m happy to believe that, in his hazy, grey shots of the vast expanse of the Bosporus, he’s providing access to another world (or, in the case at hand, one that seems inextricably bound between two). My colleague Nick Pinkerton observed of Ceylan in a review of Climates: “Ceylan is not Pialat, not Antonioni, and certainly no ‘master.’ But he is a diligent artist who squints and picks and digs and waits for tonal specificities in scenes (aided by hyper-crisp foley sound), he has a fine eye for dolorous landscapes, and he has more of a sense of humor than you might expect.” I’ll agree with one reservation: if Three Monkeys is the first step on a path to broaden his reach beyond more personal, inward-looking concerns (the stuff of, as Ebert put it while describing Distant, “fashionably dead films, in which shots last forever, and grim middle-aged men with moustaches sit and look and think and smoke and think and look and sit and smoke and shout and drive around and smoke.”), then the Turkish auteur might just be due for a promotion.
Click here to read the rest of Jeff Reichert's review of Three Monkeys.