Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2008
There’s a difference between tasting good wine and drinking it. A wine may impress at a tasting, but whether it performs at home is another thing. And of course, a good wine reveals itself over time. At the risk of overworking this strained analogy, the New Zealand International Film Festival is something like a tasting for me. It’s a taste of things to come, a preview of the films I’ll seek out and re-view again, because with fine cinema there’s always more to discover when you let them breath and open up.
The forthright and dramatic new film from Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan skates perilously close to visual, narrative, and thematic heavy-handedness – or so I thought during the festival screening. His previous film, Climates (2016), was a sophisticated cine-poem, a class act that required attentive involvement from the viewer. On the face of it, THREE MONKEYS appears to be a conventional tale about a politician who persuades his driver to take the blame on his behalf (and a period of imprisonment) for an accident that would jeopardise his chances in an upcoming election. While in prison, the driver’s son drifts into dangerous company, and his wife becomes intimately involved with the politician. When he returns from prison, suspicion, guilt, fear and recriminations permeate the claustrophobic world of this traumatised family.
In many ways, Three Monkeys is quintessential Ceylan, particularly in terms of his sophisticated visual style, the way he moves (or doesn’t move) his camera, his pacing, and his seamless temporal shifts. But the subject matter and overall look and feel of the film are darker than usual. Corruption and oppression (psychological, spiritual, political, emotional, sexual) are much more to the fore, and handled with broader brush-strokes than we’re used to from Ceylan. It's as if he wants to ensure that everyone in the audience gets the point. Ceylan’s films are not, apparently, widely seen in Turkey, so given the criticism of patriarchal order and male delusion in his work, Three Monkeys may be an attempt to connect with a broader Turkish audience – men in particular.
Alas, some have misconstrued the depiction of misogyny in Three Monkeys as evidence of misogyny on Ceylan’s part, but if that was the case many of the scenes would have been very different. The audience would more than likely have been encouraged to vicariously engage with the abuse the film sets out to criticise (and which largely goes unseen and unembellished). The film is an examination of the consequences of choices and actions, and while it’s squarely focused on one family the wider implications are clear. Guilt and pain inform virtually every scene, and in two beautiful moments of pure cinema (worthy of Ceylan’s mentor, Andrei Tarkovsky), repression, denial, and loss become hauntingly present and palpable.
The film is essentially about forgiveness, or more to the point, the adjustment needed to be able to forgive – not just others, but oneself. The more one thinks about this noir-tinged tale, the more compassionate and relevant it seems. Whether this is Grand Cru Ceylan remains to be seen, but I look forward to tasting it again soon.
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader