“Winter Sleep,” the drama from acclaimed Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, requires, like the snowfall that blankets a village in Cappadocia, where this story unfolds, that you settle in for a while. Three hours, 16 minutes to be precise.
And Ceylan is precise. There are no wasted moments as he introduces the place and the players; lays out the field of battle. In that way, “Winter” feels very much like an epic novel, mirroring the pacing and themes of Chekov, whose work was its inspiration.
The winner of two top prizes at Cannes last year — the Palme d’Or and the FIPRESCI — it is one of those movies that will either captivate or frustrate. I found myself quickly drawn in, absorbed, regretful that it didn’t go on just a bit more.
The central figure is Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a famous stage actor now retreated to running his family’s inn, Hotel Othello, one of many literary allusions. His cultured distain for everything and everyone provides the tone. The picturesque village, literally carved out of the stony rock formations found in central Anatolia, is the perfect place to examine entrenched ideas. Issues of economics, ethics, gender, age and emotions keep things constantly on edge.
Like so much of Ceylan’s work, “Winter Sleep” is a haunting piece. Director of photography Gokhan Tiryaki deepens the mood, capturing the area’s aching beauty and inherent hardships: the rock houses that seem to be crouching down against the bitter wind; the open steppes where Anatolia’s famous wild horses roam; the faces, as interesting and inclement as the land.
Aydin is an intellectual who fancies himself above the fray, spending his days contemplating life, penning opinion pieces for the local paper, avoiding the book on Turkish theater he intends to write. And, as we soon discover, avoiding the harder realities of his life: his marriage to a younger beauty Nihal (Melisa Sozen) is fraught, his recently divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbag) finds him a frustration and his assistant, Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), doesn’t feel he handles his responsibilities as he should, especially when it comes to his tenants.
There is a telling scene early on when a village boy throws a stone at the car Aydin and Hidayet are in, breaking a window. The boy is caught, returned home. But Aydin stays at a distance, leaving it to his assistant to confront the family. This is a man uncomfortable with conflict, at the same time often the source of it.
The boy, Ilyas (Emirhan Doruktutan), will factor in at crucial moments, always wearing an insolent frown, anger in his eyes. His father, Ismail (Nejat Isler), is just out of prison, unemployed, frequently drunk and exceedingly resentful of Aydin, who is his landlord. Ismail’s brother Hamdi (Serhat Kilic), a local imam, is the cloying peacemaker, the smile forced.
Aydin may have left the stage but he still loves to hear himself talk, and the writers, Ceylan and his frequent collaborator, wife Ebru Ceylan, have given him a great deal to say. Bilginer is rather brilliant in the way he pulls us along. At first the discourse is pleasant, though a bit precious, since Aydin loves literary flourishes. The volume never varies, but the tone grows increasingly dark — patronizing, self-aggrandizing, condescending, biting. It serves to shift one’s allegiance from the handsome, silver-haired leading man to everyone else.
In one sense, Aydin is merely a man living in a state of denial, pressing his wife to tell him exactly what he’s done wrong. In another way, he represents a culture resistant to change, intent on making its citizens bow to tradition — like the stone-throwing boy urged to kiss his ring. The Ceylans deconstruct both the man and the metaphor piece by piece.
“Winter Sleep” is also concerned with the difficulties of a May-December romance, Aydin more emotionally dependent on Nihal than he wants to admit. His inability to express his love drives some of the turmoil. Sozen’s young wife visibly strengthens and weakens in front of her husband’s condescension. In allowing Nihal to so visibly break down, the actress makes her emotional distress, her sense of defeat, palpable.
Nihal’s charity work for impoverished schools serves as the breaking point. It is the one thing in her life she can call her own, and becomes a target for Aydin’s distress, as does its leader, a teacher named Levent (Nadir Saribacak), closer to Nihal’s age, charismatic and unmarried.
It takes a while to dig into all the pieces of Aydin’s world that are crumbling around him. But in taking the time, Ceylan has given us a rich portrait of modern despair, a culture in transition and a man truly seeing himself, perhaps for the first time.