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    Three Monkeys – Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Soul Searching

    By Ron Holloway | July 9, 2008

    Üç Maymun (Three Monkeys) (Turkey/France, 2008) marks Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s fourth visit to Cannes. His status as a genuine auteur grows with each film. This time around, he has come closer than ever before to paying homage to the director he respects the most – Andrei Tarkovsky.

    Back In 1995, he made his first appearance at Cannes in the short film section with Koza (Cocoon), starring his own parents in a tale of family alienation that has become his cinematic trademark. Even then, as an aspiring auteur director, his style of filmmaking was visibly influenced by Tarkovsky’s cinema. Cocoon explored personal feelings within an already finely honed stylistic vision. Further, in this and succeeding portraits of the inner self, he made sure to control every phase of production: as producer, screenwriter, director, cameraman, set designer, editor – in short, the image as the defining element of the whole film.

    Ceylan’s journey into the self continued in Kasaba (The Small Town) (1997), programmed at the International Forum of New Cinema at the 1998 Berlinale. Shot in black-and-white, The Small Town, an impressionistic portrait of family life in an isolated village, is remarkable for its misty images, as though the entire film is rendered as the director’s own nostalgic dream of times past.

    Two years later, Ceylan presented his tender and affectionate Mayis the Sikintisi (Clouds of May) (1999) in the competition at the 2000 Berlinale. Viewed as an autobiographical treatise, Clouds of May is the story of a documentary filmmaker, whose next project takes him from Istanbul to the Anatolian village of his birth. The filmmaker’s overriding concern for the merits of the production, however, prevents him from appreciating the rather obscure distress of his father, who needs his son to help validate his legal claim to a piece of land on which he has already built a house. As the title implies, Clouds of May is flooded with shots of natural beauty – indeed, images reminiscent of Turner’s landscape paintings. The viewer is beseeched to feel the peace of a idyllic wooded retreat and the languid beauty of a spring evening, to which are added the faces of people reflecting their deep roots in the rhythms and traditions of a rural community.

    Ceylan returned to Cannes in 2003 with Uzak (Distant), awarded the Grand Jury Prize and Best Actor Awards to Mehmet Emin Toprak (post mortem) and Muzaffer Özdemir. Distant picked up where Clouds of May had left off. The rural cousin in Clouds of May, who asks the filmmaker to help him find a job in the city, is the same young man who comes knocking of photographer’s door in Distant. The theme of Distant is found in its title: the slow passage of time, a space giving way to nothingness, a relationship that dies on the vine, a void that is never filled with anything meaningful, a life shown for what it is – barren and colorless. Twice, as though the film needed a frame of aesthetic reference, the estranged photographer is seen viewing a videotape of a Tarkovsky film.

    Ceylan returned to Cannes again in 2006 with Iklimler (Climates), awarded the FIPRESCI Critics Prize. As the title hints, Climates is shot in intersecting episodes against the changing seasons of a blistering summer, a rainy autumn, a frosty winter. Only spring is missing, although Bahar – Turkish for “spring” – just happens to be the name of the female protagonist. An excruciating tale of a relationship slowly falling apart, Climates stars Nuri Bilge Ceylan himself as a university professor fascinated by ancient architecture. His wife, Ebru Ceylan, plays his loving but wounded companion.

    Now comes Three Monkeys, Ceylan’s third invitation to compete for the Palme d’Or. On the surface, Three Monkeys – referring in the title to the well-known “monkey metaphor” of hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil – appears to be little more than a family story about human failings. About how covering up the truth can lead to more extravagant lies and then tragic consequences. Four people are intertwined in a web of lies. A politician, who is involved in a hit and-run accident, persuades his driver to take the blame and go to jail, for which money is paid to the family. While the driver is serving the sentence, the politician seduces the wife. They are discovered by her grown son, a do-nothing who bears the inner burden of having caused the death of his younger brother by drowning. Ebru Ceylan, the director’s wife, cowrote the screenplay and plays the driver’s wife.

    In a personal statement Nuri Bilge Ceylan underscored the theme of Three Monkeys as follows: “It has always astonished me to see in the human soul the coexistence of the power to rule and the potential to forgive, the interest in the most holy and that of the lowest banality, of love and hate.” This said, Three Monkeys is Ceylan’s first film to deal directly with the human soul. It brings him closer to Tarkovsky than ever before.

    – Ron Holloway

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