MoMA's "Filmmaker in Focus: Nuri Bilge Ceylan": A Retrospective

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep, set in Cappadocia, Turkey, had its New York premiere this week at MoMA. (Photo courtesy of Museum of Modern Art.)

by Maria Garcia

At Wednesday night’s first public screening of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, the standby line at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) snaked around the first-floor lobby. Fifteen minutes after the scheduled 7 PM start, when the filmmaker took the podium inside the smaller of the museum’s theaters, every seat was taken. Despite a 196-minute run time, the audience was eager to hear Bilge Ceylan’s introduction. He spoke briefly, simply stating that the writing of the screenplay, in partnership with his wife Ebru Ceylan, had been quite contentious. The confession appeared droll and spontaneous, but some of us were startled: Ebru is 17 years younger than her husband and Winter Sleep, set in Cappadocia, Turkey, is about an affluent, older man in an unhappy marriage to a much younger woman.

The screening marked the opening night of MoMA’s retrospective of the Turkish writer-director’s work, which consists of seven films, including Winter Sleep, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. Best-known for Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), the story of a love triangle that leads to murder, Bilge Ceylan has also written and directed Three Monkeys (2008), a story of classically tragic dimensions; Climates (2006), a tale about a failing marriage in which the filmmaker and his wife co-starred; Distant (2002), the story of an Istanbul photographer who helps a country cousin; Clouds of May (1999), which centers on a filmmaker scouting locations for his next project, and The Small Town (1997), inspired by Bilge Ceylan’s boyhood. All of the films will screen between now and November 5th. (Tickets can be purchased here.)

In my 2011 interview with Bilge Ceylan for Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (which can be found here), the filmmaker admitted to being misunderstood in his own country, especially with regard to his feelings about women. “Man is lost in the dark,” he said in that interview. “He wants to connect himself always to a woman. On the surface, it seems that this is just about desire, but it is much more than that.” The writer-director could have been speaking about Winter’s Sleep which, like all of his films, is shot from the point of the view of a male protagonist who is unable to articulate his emotions or to act upon them. Bilge Ceylan’s movies unfold slowly, and are characterized by meticulous framing and unusual uses of sound to replace image. He is obviously influenced by French filmmaker Robert Bresson. In fact, in Winter Sleep, the musical theme is Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A Major, the same one used by Bresson in Au Hasard Balthazar (1966).

Like all retrospectives in any art form, “MoMA’s Filmmaker in Focus: Nuri Bilge Ceylan” provides a rare opportunity to see the complete work of a wonderful artist, in this case one at the height of his talents. Because the writer-director often collaborates with the same principal crew—for instance, Ebru Ceylan as co-writer, and Gökhan Tiryaki as DP, have worked on four of his seven films—this program allows the viewer to chart the progress of these artists as well, across different settings and storylines. While Bilge Ceylan has long been an important filmmaker in world cinema, it was not until Once Upon a Time in Anatolia that he captured a larger audience here. His work is meant for the large screen, not only because of its stark depictions of “Anatolia,” Turkey’s vast countryside, but because of the filmmaker’s close study of his character’s emotions, especially evident in Climates where the camera is often in close-up, lingering on Ebru Ceylan’s face, as she struggles to come to grips with her husband’s indifference.

Such scenes require great film acting, a component of Bilge Ceylan’s work which draws the viewer in even when the plot seems to move slowly or when, as in Winter Sleep, it takes over three hours to unfold. Delightful flashes of humor are also apparent in every one of the filmmaker’s movies, often of the sort we associate with country life. For instance, in Winter Sleep and in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, it is centered on hired drivers who take themselves and their jobs rather more seriously than anyone else does, or when the boredom and drunkenness of male characters lead to verbose contests of one-upmanship. Bilge Ceylan’s direction of actors also lies at the core of his ability to create dramatic tension, or to shift the mood of the film, which is apparent in Climates when, for instance, Ebru Ceylan’s character turns away from her brooding self-reflection to a shocking instance of self-destruction.

Like the works of Robert Bresson, Bilge Ceylan’s films are elemental and therefore inherently cinematic. There is no wasted motion, in the choreographing of the actors’ movements, in the motion of the camera, or in the editing of the movie. Everything beyond the frame feels insubstantial and fearful, so we remain riveted by the characters’ internal strife. If their redemption is often fleeting, it is because in “Anatolia,” as in the provincial settings from which Bresson drew inspiration, the senses are dulled, for some by hard labor and despair, and for others by greed or, as in Winter Sleep, by the pretense of intellectual pursuits, so that the soul has little room to flourish.