Distant, the third feature by the 45-year-old Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is a movie of quiet revelations that is itself quite surprising. Ceylan’s exotic Istanbul may remind some viewers of celluloid Scandinavia—a hushed and wintry world of secular alienation, broken marriages, and artistic angst.
One of the few hits in competition at Cannes last May, Distant is an unmistakable art film from an unlikely source. Thoughtfully orchestrated and filled with visual wit, the movie opens in contemplation of a man crossing a snowy landscape in the early-morning light; the camera pans left to an empty road and the figure reappears in the frame just in time to flag down an approaching car. Cut to an out-of-focus sexual encounter in an urban apartment, where some time later the first line of dialogue is filtered through a telephone answering machine.
Distant is predicated on a sense of lives that converge but never intersect. Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak), the man first seen, waits on the street in a fashionable Istanbul neighborhood, where his presence sets off a car alarm. He has left his village looking for work and has invited himself to stay with his older cousin Mahmut (Muzaffer Ozdemir), a craggy loner who came to Istanbul years ago and has managed to reinvent himself as a successful photographer. The remote Mahmut is a modern man. He’s distanced from his own feelings, but the title also describes Ceylan’s method. The movie is carefully framed, the camera is more observer than participant, musical cues are absent, and there are lengthy passages without dialogue.
The emphasis falls on the space between people—and their failure to bridge that void. The pale light and the constant chill are pervasive presences. The relationship between the cousins seems elusive, although it is inevitable that the fastidious Mahmut will grow increasingly irritated with the gauche bumpkin camped out in his spare room. Actually, city mouse and country cousin have a few things in common. Both have sick mothers, both follow women in the street, both are lonely, and both grow to resent each other tremendously. Mahmut hires Yusuf as his assistant when he goes on assignment in Anatolia—with predictably negative results. (The expedition echoes Ceylan’s 2000 Clouds of May, in which a filmmaker returns to his Anatolian village to make a documentary.)
Ceylan several times references Andrei Tarkovsky—Mahmut is seen glumly watching both Stalker and Solaris on his TV monitor (although he switches to porn once Yusuf turns in for the night). But Distant is the opposite of visionary mysticism. Its reserve takes on a hard, gemlike quality. The filmmakers to whom Ceylan seems closest in his use of repetition and droll understatement are contemporaries like Abbas Kiarostami and Tsai Ming-liang, both of whom adapted the old-fashioned cine-modernism of Michelangelo Antonioni to urban Asia. Mahmut’s profession recalls Antonioni’s Blow-Up but is even more related to Distant‘s autobiographical subtext: Ceylan was himself a photographer. His mother plays Mahmut’s mother, and Toprak, who also appeared in Clouds of May, is his actual cousin—Toprak’s death in an automobile accident shortly after the movie’s completion adds an unintended tragic dimension to his performance.
A series of incidents in which the presence of a pesky mouse and the disappearance of a watch take on cumulative narrative weight, Distant does coalesce into something—but what? The naive Yusuf dreams of going abroad but can’t find a job that will take him there; Mahmut’s ex-wife is moving to Canada with her new husband; the photographer is unable to form another relationship and is increasingly unhappy with the commercial aspect of his work. Is it possible to make a rich and satisfying movie about loss and emptiness? Reviewing Distant when it screened at the New York Film Festival, The New York Times deemed it dreary; like Jafar Panahi’s comparably modest, deadpan, and artful Crimson Gold, also an NYFF alum, Distant could easily fail to attract an audience. (Given their geopolitical significance, Turkey and Iran should be of enormous interest to Americans, but as David Denby’s dim dismissal of the “annoying” Kiarostami some years ago illustrated, our educated middle class has precious little interest in theirs.)
Distant is mainly political in its existence. Mahmut’s obligatory, and typically ineffectual, airport pilgrimage is an homage to the transient. People do nothing but disappear from his life. The poetic final image of the photographer watching a ship pass in the icy harbor is a sort of burnt offering. Shivering in the cold, he smokes a cigarette from the pack that his unwelcome houseguest left behind.