Melbourne Cinematique’s 2019 programme is full of great films. Membership which is not expensive is great value providing the opportunity to see a couple of films a week, many which you don’t have access to any other way. You get to see some incredible films. They generally run them in seasons either based on directors, actors or themes.
Figurative Landscapes And Socratic Conversations: The Visionary Cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
This was our first season this year. I’ve seen and loved three of Ceylan’s films at three different Melbourne International Film Festivals over the last few years. This season title sums up this director’s work perfectly.
While most of his films have a strong story line his real interest is how people relate to one another: as workmates, neighbours, siblings, lovers, husbands, wives, parents and children.
And he likes to reveal these relationships obliquely through what people say to each other and through tiny details. There is so much talking in his films – long conversations, short conversations, little asides, so much dialogue! It’s the only time, watching sub-titled films which never bothers me, that I’ve felt I’m missing out through not understanding the language. After a first viewing I always feel I’d get value from another one. Which I’ve done when the opportunity presented. Thus far its happened only with Once Upon A time In Anatolia which I’ve now seen three times!
You have to be observant because the tiny details in these films matter: they add so much. A gesture, a glance, a trace of dirt on a cheek. They all add depth to the story, to the character, to the relationships. Sometimes these are explained. Sometimes not. A lot is left to the viewer to interpret. Very similar to Ingmar Bergman as the Cinematique programme notes.
And, having started out as a stills photographer, the cinematography in Ceylan’s films is stunning. We find ourselves in some spectacular landscapes. He obviously takes pleasure in placing his films in striking Turkish locations and favours long shots to show them off. He likes showing things askance; through doorways, windows and mirrors and through nature; rustling leaves, snow falling. He likes silhouettes and close ups. There are moments of great beauty in his films; we see faces lit by candlelight and sunlight, light shimmering on water, snow falling, perfectly composed landscapes that could be abstract paintings, arrangements of objects that could be still life paintings.
Here’s what we saw, in the order they were screened.
First up, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia.
As I’ve said I’ve now seen this movie three times and get more out of it at each screening. Ostensibly a story about a murder but really about contemporary Turkish experience. In this instance in the provinces, far away from urban life in cities like Istanbul. For much of the time we are inside a small police car. It seems small because there are five men squeezed in. The policeman driver, next to him the chief and in the back another policeman and the doctor with the suspect jammed in the middle. The talk is mundane to start with but over time insights into their lives emerge. The chief has a boy who needs a regular supply of medicine for a condition that’s not revealed; I figured autism. The chief needs a prescription from the doctor, it’s hard on his wife, it’s easier for him to be at work. The suspect has promised to lead them to the body but his directions are vague; a ploughed field, a tree, a water fountain. There’s a convoy; the police car, the coroner’s car, an army vehicle. They are travelling through farmland; the road a ribbon winding between yellow fields, few trees. Early stops prove fruitless. They are forced to stay the night at the driver’s village. He is reluctant. Turns out his status in the village is low. The mayor makes them welcome and takes the opportunity to lobby for resources from the coroner, a person of some authority. As is the doctor; an outsider who has come to the provinces from the city. We see pictures of his ex wife by his move is never fully explained. Throughout there is a dialogue between the doctor and the coroner whose wife has died in mysterious circumstances. Can a person predict the day they will die. Only if they commit suicide says the doctor. There is another story involving the suspect, his brother and the victim. Such dense story telling. Such interesting themes and ideas. Beautiful landscape and an intensely moving moment at the mayor’s house when his beautiful daughter, lit by a candle, offers the visitors tea. Nothing is said but the expressions on the faces of the men says so much! The Cinematique note says this film touches profoundly on human nature, society, everyday life and the philosophical underpinnings of existence. It was a joint winner of the Canne Jury Prize in 2011 and a nominee for that year’s Palm d’Or. The trailer can be found here
I’d not seen this before. Filmed in black and white it has all the hallmarks of a film noir. It opens on a lonely road at night. We’re in with the driver who’s tired; he collides with a cyclist and hurriedly leaves the scene but a car going by sees his numberplate. Our driver is candidate for political office and can’t afford a scandal. He’s also a man of means, a solicitor. He calls his chauffeur. It’s the middle of the night but he agrees to meet where he receives his boss’s proposal in silence. Will he take the wrap for the accident. A short time in prison in exchange for financial support for wife and adolescent son. Proposal accepted. This bit is over quickly. The film is interested in the consequences. For wife, for son, for husband. Three monkeys – see no evil, hear no evil, do no evil. Great cinematography. We’re in the city, Istanbul, in a strange triangular shaped, tiny, cramped apartment overlooking a railway line. Lots of odd angles, mirrors, silhouettes through glass doors and no privacy at all. For mother or son. There’s a roof top from which you can see the Mamara Sea where ships wait to enter the Bosphorus Strait. We’ve overlooked that same see from a hotel in Istanbul. The film raises ethical dilemma after ethical dilemma. In this film, while there’s some dialogue, it’s the silences that matter most. The Cinematique note calls it a boldly novelistic tale of social inequality, family conflict and the exchange of guilt exploring its themes through a formally experimental and expressionistic palette of manipulated images and sounds. It won Ceylan Best Director at Cannes in 2008. A terrific film. You can see the trailer here
This is another film I’d not seen before. About a relationship with the characters played by Ceylan himself and his real wife, Ebru Ceylan. Set in Istanbul and later in the snowy eastern provinces of Turkey we follow a couple as their relationship disintegrates. Initially I found the woman deeply unsympathetic but as the film unfolded you realise what a bastard the man is. Self centred and unprincipled. This is another film where the silences convey much more that what is said. It’s all very similar to one of Ingmar Bergman’s films. Lots of moody close ups of the two main characters. What are they thinking? What will they do? An encounter by the man and another woman leads to a violent sex scene and you wonder is she a willing partner or unwilling. It’s hard to tell. Later you discover she’s a previous girlfriend of whom the woman is jealous. One assumes the episode is consensual. We see the man interacting with his colleague at work. And with another friend. He’s superficially friendly – but you are left wondering is he really. Some great landscapes. Shot amongst impressive ruins that the man is photographing for his work as an academic; later in a snowbound provincial town where the woman is working on a film set. There’s a famous shrine there that the man photographs. He’s chasing after the woman. What will she do? What should she do? Its quite explicit by the end but nonetheless quite confronting. Given the subject matter you’d think it would be confronting for a husband and wife to make. It’s quite the family affair as the director’s parents play the man’s parents in a short scene. The Cinematique note calls it a forensic pursuit of the end of a love affair. It won the FIPRESCI Prize at Canne in 2006. The trailer is here
I really loved this film which I saw a couple of years ago. It’s the one that I really felt I needed to see again to really understand the different story lines. It won the Palm D’Or in 2014, with a running time of 196 minutes, the longest film ever to do so. It’s based on teh Chekhov short stroy, The Wife. We’re in Cappadoccia in Turkey which is where people live in caves. In this claustrophobic environment the Cinematique note says Ceylon is able to mount a philosophical disquisition on alienation and emotional disappointment in a film that is deeply empathetic and both epic and intimate in its scope. Our main man, Aydin, runs a hotel. He has a much younger wife, Nihal, and his sister, Necla lives there too. There is so much going on! Aydin is landlord to a number of people living in the village one of whom is in arrears and from whom a television and other goods have been taken in lieu of rent. That family consists of an elderly mother, two brothers – one an Imam and one an unemployed ex-prisoner prone to violence who has a wife and son. Aydin has a driver who takes him wherever he wants to go. He seems to have one good friend, a widower, who has a farm nearby. Over the course of the film we observe how he engages with all of these characters. He’s a former actor intent upon writing the history of Turkish theatre; though he’s not making much progress. His wife is deeply unhappy and so it emerges is his sister. We slowly understand why. There’s an inquisitive, potentially hostile guest who wants to know why there are horses on the hotel’s website and none at the hotel. Aydin acquires a horse; a brutal sequence. As winter closes in Aydin decides to return to Istanbul. A battle of wills ensues with his wife. There’s an argument with his sister. He releases the horse before he leaves for the station. Waiting for the train he decides not to go but ends up with his friend instead; it’s time out with the boys, drinking and hunting. Returning to the hotel, and to his unhappy wife there is a long take of him in the courtyard. We hear his long interior monologue as she gazes down at him through her window. Breathtakingly beautiful imagery and words. I loved this film and want to see it again. It also has a beautiful soundtrack, something I’ve not noticed in a Ceylan film before: “Sonata in A major D959 – Andantino” by Franz Schubert. The trailer is here
The Wild Pear Tree
I saw this at last year’s MIFF. It wasn’t included in the Cinematique season but it’s a beautiful film. Another long one, this time 188 minutes. It was nominated for but didn’t win the 2018 Palme d’Or. Its set in another exotic Turkish place, Canakkale , reputedly the site of Troy. There’s a model of the Trojan wooden horse on the waterfront there. Most of the action takes place in a village a bus ride away which is where Sinan lives with his mother, father and sister. Sinan has just finished at university where he has written a novel and he spends the movie wandering around his home town seeking out people who might help him get it published. He also visits Canakkale where he visits a bookshop and engages, and finally berates, a celebrated author. At home he reconnects with old school friends. There’s a beautiful scene with a young woman under a beautiful russet coloured tree. The light falling on her face as the two take stock of each other. Later he sees her married off to a local merchant and ends up brawling with her former boyfriend: no money so no marriage. It’s his father who is the fulcrum on which this film pivots. (To mix metaphors). He’s a former teacher disgraced in the village because of his compulsive gambling. He spends his time on his fathers rundown farm on the outskirts of the village where he is digging a well. Despite everyone’s strong advice that there is no water to be found in that place. Nevertheless he persists. Sinan fails exams that would lead to a professional career so he joins his old school friends doing national service. His book is finally published but remains unsold. He returns to the village where he finds that despite their enthusiasm for his success in publishing it, his mother and sister have not read it. Out on his farm, his father’s copy is well thumbed and he is keen to have an in depth discussion with the author. The well has been dug but is dry. There is a mysterious ending. I need to see the film again. For a moment we think that Sinan has hanged himself inside it. But that seems to be a dream. The film ends with father and son sitting beside the old farmhouse. the website IMDB tells me that Nuri Bilge Ceylan says the film is about a son’s unavoidable slide towards a fate resembling that of his father. It’s another beautiful film. The trailer is here
Opening Night – Once Upon A Time In America
Before concluding, I should mention this year’s opening night screening of Sergio Leone’s final film. A famous film that I’d never seen. Apparently it was not very successful on release because it was butchered by the studio being cut down to 139 minutes from its original 229 minutes. We got to see a 2012 restoration that is described as the closest contemporary audiences are likely to come to Leone’s original version. It covers five decades in the lives of friends Noodles (Robert De Niro) and Max (James Woods) as they seek to escape their impoverished beginnings in a Brooklyn Jewish ghetto. They peak in the nineteen twenties capitalising on prohibition era bootlegging, gambling and prostitution. Good time girls and good girls. Crooked coppers, idealistic unionists (until they’re not) and corrupt politicians. Robert De Niro is so young! Elizabeth McGovern, most recently seen in Downton Abbey, also very young, plays his love interest. The actors playing these characters as children were wonderful. The Cinematique note describes the film as one of the great accounts of the hopes of migration, the corruption of unfettered capitalism and the wasted opportunities and distorted perspectives of the ‘American Centrury’. Images from this film stayed with me for ages after seeing it. Worth seeing if you ever get the chance. The trailer is here.