Distant (Uzak)

Turkey (2002) Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak) is a young factory worker who loses his job. To find work again as his salary provides for his family, he leaves his small town and travels to Istanbul to stay with his cousin Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir), a photographer who is in a depressive funk of his own. The two don’t really get along, Yusuf’s slovenly attitude clashing with Mahmut’s penchant for neatness, but they do share a common foible – the inability to express themselves to others.

I have to confess I approach every Nuri Bilge Ceylan film with some trepidation despite knowing full well what I am letting myself in for. The problem is that Ceylan is noted for the silent longueurs or either the quotidian or the minimal which for my tastes makes his films drag.  But I am aware that he is capable of astute observational and exploratory dramas which is what I hoping to see. But it seems for every 104 minute film like Uzak, a fair percentage of is often taken up with the abovementioned eked out scenes of nothingness. I get that Ceylan is trying to replicate the realism of every nuance of daily life which is fine, but for me personally, too much of this is often to the detriment of the effectiveness of the film.

So, when I read reviews of Ceylan’s films declaring them masterpieces I tend to wonder it is that I am missing that makes me disagree with these effusive sentiments although I do appreciate them. However Uzak, to its credit, is less guilty of the tedious empty passages that the other films from this highly praised Turkish director which makes this an easier film for me to appreciate and while I can’t agree that it is a masterpiece it is still a decent perceptive drama.

Ceylan doesn’t offer much exposition or backstories for his characters so the audience is left to figure them as we go along. Yusuf appears earnest enough, travelling to the wintry climes of Istanbul in search of work, but there is a touch of the dreamer about him, his hope being that he can easily get a job at the boats, but there are none going. Yusuf’s lack of direction and energy irritates Mahmut, an intellectual and well off man who refuses to admit he is suffering from similar apathy. But he too is a curious man; when watching TV with Yusuf he’ll put on a deep arthouse film to appear high brow but once Yusuf goes to bed, Mahmut cracks open his dirty video stash.

Something else they have in common is women trouble. Now divorced Mahmut is stunned to learn that his ex-wife Nazan (Zuhal Gencer) has remarried and is leaving for Canada, while a relationship with his new love (Nazan Kirilmis) is cold and fruitless for both of them since Mahmut refuses to communicate. Yusuf meanwhile has taken a shine to a neighbour (Ebru Ceylan, the director’s wife) in Mahmut’s apartment block following her around and watching from afar without having the courage to say anything.

The final part of this aspect is with their mothers. Mahmut’s mother is seriously ill yet he refuses to return calls about her ailing health. Yusuf meanwhile is always on the phone checking on in his mother and enquiring about her poor health. Since one has money and comfort and one doesn’t, is the suggestion here that the plush city life makes one less considerate towards others even if they are next of kin? This is one interpretation but it’s more likely a further illustration of how emotionally distant Mahmut is from everyone.

The final act of the film appears to be about the effects of not saying all the things one wants to say to those who need to hear them. With Mahmut being such a closed book – except when he’s ranting to Yusuf about smoking in the house or dropping crumbs everywhere – it’s hard to tell, in the closing scene, if he is inwardly kicking himself for his insular attitude or if he is silently resigned to this life of self afflicted emotional solitude.

Not content with casting his own wife and his mother in the film, Ceylan also filmed the interiors of Mahmut’s apartment in his own flat, using all his own furniture and other household goods. This adds an extra sense of realism to the film and the tense atmosphere between the two principles, the natural lighting of the scenes playing a significant part in the uncomfortable sensation we all feel watching these two unfulfilled relatives separated by a vast chasm despite standing next to each other in a tiny living room.

Because of the intimacy of the camerawork there is an almost voyeuristic feeling that overcomes the audience and Ceylan plays up to this, shooting scenes in a cramped bedroom or a small bathroom. The two leads accept the challenge and reward us and Ceylan with two compelling and believable performances proving to be perfect picks for their chosen roles. Sadly however, Mehmet Emin Toprak was killed in a car accident shortly after filming completed. He was aged just 28. The pair both shared the Best Actor award at Cannes in 2003 while the film itself bagged the Grand Prix prize.

Despite my initial reservations and my reluctance to declare this a masterpiece, I can at least say that Uzak is one of Ceylan’s more affecting and resonant works that doesn’t feel as indulgent on the lingering scenes as his other films. As a result I found this easier to get into and thus appreciate even if I can’t join in on the euphoric praise. One unequivocally for the arthouse crowd.