The first thing to draw my attention in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s new film “Winter Sleep” is the rocky, mountainous landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey. While making wonderful sights for tourism in their weathered appearances, those soft rocks, which were formed from volcanic deposits a long time ago, were also carved out by local people to be used as their homes or churches, and I was especially impressed by one house shown in the film, which looks as if it were embedded within a big rock.
The story of the movie mainly revolves around a local tourist hotel owned by Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a former actor who has lived comfortably thanks to the wealth he inherited from his dead father. Besides his nice hotel virtually carved into the top of one of those rocky mountains of Cappadocia, he is also a landowner of several houses in his hometown, and his daily business matters are usually taken care of by his assistant Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan) while Aydin spends most of his time on writing columns for local newspapers or preparing for a book on the history of Turkish theater at his own private place near the hotel (but he has not written any single word for the book yet, by the way).
He is usually kind and generous to his guests at the hotel, but we slowly begin to see his deceit and hypocrisy beneath his seemingly benevolent appearance through the intimate observation on the interactions between and him and others around him. When Aydin and Hidayet go to one of his tenants for their trouble with a little village boy who is the tenant’s nephew, it is pretty clear to us why that sullen boy is angry about Aydin, but Aydin only notices other things to judge and criticize later while being oblivious to his tenant’s poor situation. When the tenant, who happens to be a local imam, visits him later for fixing the situation as much as he can, Aydin merely notices the imam’s obsequiousness, and then he writes a critical column based on his impression while never considering the social gap between him and the imam.
Having been insulated within his self-absorbed view, he is not very nice to two people living with him: his recently divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbağ) and his young wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen). When Necla throws some comments on her brother’s recent writings during their conversation at his private place, he seems to be ready to accept any criticism at first, but then he quickly switches to a more defensive mode as she begins to point out his superficial side, and both of them eventually become frustrated with their conversation going nowhere. While the camera is calmly observing them, Bilginer and Akbağ handle this long scene with their fluent and precise delivery of lines and reactions, and their performances make it captivating to watch.
Akbağ also has another very good scene when Necla shows her own hypocrisy during her conversation with Nihal. While taking about her ex-husband, Necla sticks to her distorted view on her unhappy marriage along with her rather misguided opinion of tolerance, and Nihal sees that there is nothing much to say except her resigned agreement to her sister-in-law. Necla clearly perceives her brother’s flaws, but, ironically, she does not see her own flaws just like him – and we are also reminded that we are not so free from such ironic ignorance in our life either.
In case of Nihal, she has been distant from her husband for years, and all she cares about in her unhappy life is doing some local charity work through his money – and she does not want her husband’s involvement at all. When Aydin suddenly shows an interest in charity at one point after reading one sentimentally pleading letter sent to him, she is apparently not very pleased about that, and their estranged relationship becomes more strained then ever when Aydin tries to ‘help’ her recent charity project later in the story.
Although the screenplay by Ceylan and his wife Ebru is loosely inspired by Anton Chekov’s two short stories “The Wife” and “Excellent People”, “Winter Sleep” is more reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s chamber dramas considering its mood and subjects. While focusing on a handful of main characters, the movie gives us a number of emotionally hurtful moments amid its bleak atmosphere, and Sözen has a powerful moment later in the story when Nihal finally decides to speak directly to her husband on how he is actually a person he should despise more than others willfully judged by him.
The crisp cinematography by Gökhan Tiryaki, who did a terrific job in Ceylan’s previous film “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” (2011), wonderfully captures the barren beauty of wintry landscapes on the screen, and some of the interior scenes in the film also look fabulous thanks to their evocative mood and lighting. As looking around Aydin’s hotel, we come to sense more of the emotional distance between the main characters, and their private places begin to look a lot like caves with some fire where they retreat from each other and then nurse resentment or dissatisfaction inside them.
The movie leisurely takes its time to establish story and characters while allowing some space for other crucial supporting characters in the story, but its slow pace feels detrimental at times. Although I heard that its rough cut was around 4.5 hours, the running time of the final cut, which is more than 3 hours, is still a little too long, and there are several redundant elements which can be cut without much problem – and I personally think its last 50 minutes could have been shortened a bit.
None the less, “Winter Sleep”, which was honored with the Palme d’Or and the FIPRESCI Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in last year (it was also Turkey’s official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards of this year, though it was not selected in the final list), is another absorbing work from Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It is not perfect, but it is supported well by many engaging things including its actors’ nuanced performances, and the overall result is a slow but rewarding journey to reflect on later.