Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Like Ceylan’s last film, the slo-mo police drama “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” (also amazing, but admittedly a more demanding a viewing experience), “Winter Sleep” is set along a kind of internal border within Turkey, where the nation’s educated, Westernized elite encounters deeply rooted traditional culture. Its central character – it would be a stretch to call him the hero – is a retired actor named Aydin, played by Haluk Bilginer, himself an eminent Turkish stage and screen actor who’s also done numerous roles in English (including five years on the British soap “EastEnders”). Aydin is a prominent landlord and hotel proprietor in a remote village of Cappadocia, the high plateau of central Anatolia that’s loaded with archaeological and geographical splendors and famous for its wild horses. He has a much younger wife named Nihal (the gorgeous Melisa Sözen) who has clearly fallen out of love with him, an embittered divorced sister named Necla (Demet Akbag), and an increasingly acrimonious relationship with an impoverished tenant family who haven’t paid their rent in months. Soak all of that in booze, snow, egotism and genteel decay, and it’s a combustible combination.
I described “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” as an episode of “CSI” transported to the Turkish outback and rewritten by Anton Chekhov, and while the influence was obvious it was a better guess than I realized. “Winter Sleep” is actually adapted from a story by Chekhov, who was obsessed by many of the same intertwined issues of class, caste, property and history that preoccupy Ceylan. While “Winter Sleep” never seems “political” in the narrow or most obvious sense, Aydin’s predicament has everything to do with Turkey’s peculiar status between East and West, hemmed in on one side by godless European amorality and on the other by the fiery sword of jihad. One of Aydin’s deadbeat tenants is an imam (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç), who is embarrassingly servile to Aydin’s face and then curses him behind his back. The imam’s brother, an unemployed ex-con named Ismail (Nejat Isler), is less hypocritical, and views Aydin and his wife with a sardonic, predatory intensity that points toward a shocking final confrontation.
It’s Ismail’s preteen son who provides the most obvious inciting incident, breaking Aydin’s windshield with a stone in an effort to avenge his father’s humiliation. But if that event didn’t send these people on a downward spiral, something else would have. There is also Aydin’s deepening suspicion that Nihal is having an affair, his thwarted desire to purchase and tame one of the region’s wild horses, and his attempt to forge a friendship with a visiting motocross biker who is spending a few days in the hotel. He has settled into the archetypal big-frog-small-pond-role as an eminent citizen of Nowheresville, airing his private grievances in a bitter newspaper column read by no one except his hostile sister, increasingly confronted with his unfulfilled dreams and his deepening unhappiness.