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  • Writer's pictureAli Farahmand

Lost In Nature | A Critical Review Of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Cinema – An Auteur In Contemporary Cinema

By Ali Farahmand


Having been transformed by the sweet smell of wind, the roughness of soil, and the hardness of rock, the man is not paying attention to the woman who has been regretfully leaning on an ancient column. Is the man sane or has he been condemned to neglect the others? We can answer the question when the camera captures the man through a long shot among the columns and the rocks. He has been obviously surrounded by the nature. The film Climates and its bitter introduction are mostly based on the inevitability of human destiny which has been devoured by the cold shadow of nature. People who cannot liberate themselves from the nature surrounding them, and come off as cold and distant to others as a result. Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s characters are permanently struggling with these issues. It looks like nature has selected them to be wanderers but not the kind who look for mystical solutions. Instead, they are to be the kind of wanderers who achieve a mild change in life. They are looking at life as life in itself with all of its shortcomings and not the noisy perks of the modern world. They are not antisocial but they entrust their mental pains to nature, which is the best shelter for them. These people cannot be judged because the mad world’s uproar is so unbearable that no one can be judged by it. There is black or white, no angels or demons – they are just captivated by their inner selves and there is no shelter but nature.

Humans and nature

The silent short film Koza [1], which emphasizes the dreadful sense of nature and all its wanderers, was one of Ceylan’s first works. Being heavily influenced by the impressionists of the 1920s and full of metaphors, the movie narrates the story of an old couple who are separating. The setting of Koza suggests a mesmerizing sense of insecurity in an apocalyptic shot that shows a kid playing recklessly in a garden without paying attention to this separation. The man is being held by the garden and the wind and gets lost as a result. The soil which welcomes lifeless bodies reminds the viewer of graves while animals destroy memories, such as when termites devour an old picture of the couple when they were young.

An exaggerated black and white contrast portrays the threatening image of the garden and a human being who has no choice but to wander are the most important elements of the movie. However, Koza does not always present nature as being so brutal and this totally depends on how people look at it and what they think about it. In the second half of the film, nature gives the old depressed couple an opportunity to reunite when the fire holds them together from a separating storm or wheat stands still by a shining sun or a glass is hammered by rain and the couple once again contemplates the past and the eventuality of being together, though in the end they still separate.

Kasaba [2], was Ceylan’s first long film and it presents a harsh natural condition in which a boy is trying to reach his elementary school. Although it is winter and nature is preventing the boy from reaching the school, in Kasaba nature shows its kindness in spring. The film illustrates three generations of a Kasabian family with the youngest ones being the narrators. The girl who has trouble with adapting herself to society is the first narrator during a very cold winter. It seems that the frozen nature is like the girl herself since she is completely indifferent to the contemporary world. When the teacher talks about customs and their importance along with civil laws, it seems like they are attached to traditions. Spring is the next season depicted in the film as the girl and her brother go to their family’s corn farm and learn something along the way about the secrets of nature and wildlife. Now that they have cut their relationships with the outer world, nature has the best chance to show its kindness to them. The brother and the sister know the complexity and the darkness of the grownups and when they arrive at the farm the adults have already gathered around the fire and are talking about war, death, hunger, famine, and work. This is the first time that the little ones confront such a harsh world which is full of violence and dishonesty. These also seem to be the main principles of the adult world.

An old eagle, the grandfather says, was their shelter when they were faced with the ruthlessness of the nature. They thought that the eagle was the mother of nature and it could solve the problem. Nature in Kasaba is an intelligent entity which welcomes all wanderers. It seems that the men have no option but to return to themselves. At the end of the film, there is a scene in which one of the wandering characters walks on a never-ending road and it metamorphoses into a very small spot which has been dissolved in nature, which always welcomes lonely wanderers. It must be said that although these are the main themes of Ceylan’s cinema, he never supports this kind of solitude and being cut away from the world. On the contrary, his characters are strongly connected to society because of their jobs. However, nature is always the first and best shelter for them also sometimes uncovering secrets and sometimes hiding them.

Nature, as an atmosphere which surrounds human beings, is interpreted much better in Clouds of May [3]. Ceylan the naturalist director once again uses nature as the main background for his story but this time this active element acts as a bridge which changes potentialities into actualities. Kindness and the beauty of nature are highlighted much more in Clouds of May than in previous films. There is a key scene in which the main character stares at the clouds and the trees dancing in the wind and then suddenly focuses on the fast movements of the clouds and the marvelous shadows that they cast on the ridges. These editing and cinematography techniques portray the sad beauty of nature. The last shot of the film shows an old man who once thought of himself as the owner of nature now sleeping like a child beside nature, as his mother, in a sunset. The source of such kindness is the old man’s decision to stop struggling against nature and to give himself up to it. Clouds of May and “Hafez” the persian poet, have a point in common, as Hafez says:

Thou that goest not forth from the house of nature

How passage to the street of Tarikat, thou canst make.

The plot of Clouds of May follows a documentary filmmaker who wants to make a film but does not know how. He can’t see any solution but nature for finding a way to the “street of Tarikat.” By giving up everything he will be able see the kindness of it. The movie has a lot in common with Ceylan’s last film. The characters in both are frustrated by social inequalities and they find that nature can be the solution. At the end of both films the characters are not only regretful but achieve a new perspective on life, which is the main reason why we can conclude that the director and all of the characters have improved their own ideas about nature.

This cannot be described through words and needs to be seen and perceived. Distant[4] was the next film in which Ceylan presented a character who has been discarded by society since he cannot find a suitable job and therefore decides to leave everything behind and stare off into the beyond at the end of the film. As the title of the film suggests, it is about the main character’s journey to awareness of the surrounding world. The man gradually leaves behind his worldly concerns, which are represented by his messy room at the beginning of the film, and makes his way beside a lake with a sunset background. His gaze at the end of the film is reminiscent of the woman’s sad look in Climates [5], after being rejected by her lover. They are both about just one thing – attention. In fact, nature answers the woman’s sobbing when it beautifies the world with its snow. The camera also emphasizes this with a shot of the sky which absorbs all of the snowflakes. The woman disappears slowly because she, like the man, finds the true lover.

In Ceylan’s films the relationships between the characters and nature have a lot of similarities with their own characteristics. Simple men relate to nature simply while the complex ones – whose complexities are not the result of worldly matters – have a mystical relationship with it. That is why nature has a more prominent role in Three Monkeys, Once Upon Time in Anatolia, and Winter Sleep. The inner selves of the characters have always been shown by nature so the more complex the characters are then the more twisted is their relationship with nature and themselves. We can even detect this kind of relationship in Three Monkeys [6], which is Ceylan’s weakest film, in which sentimental subplots of Turkish cinema clichés and television series have outshone the filmmaker’s usual style.

Servat (Ercan Kesal( is a politician whose career is on the verge of collapse due to an accident which killed an unknown man. He wants his driver, Ayoub, to accept responsibility for the accident because there is a very important election the next day and he does not want his political fortunes to be affected. Ayoub agrees to go to jail instead of him for a suitable amount of money. Ismail, Ayoub’s son, and Hacer, his wife, have a very hard time but a sudden relationship that forms between Servat and Hacer changes everything. Although this is Ceylan’s weakest film because he tries to separate himself from those clichés, the last shot illustrates the same style as throughout the director’s entire career. A long shot captures Ayoub surrounded by nature when he finds out that his family has collapsed. He is defeated and the rain weeps. Different long shots and a lack of background music are the elements through which the director has tried to separate himself from the usual clichés of absurd Turkish melodramas and this is so clear throughout the film that we cannot ignore it. The problem is that when the filmmaker has not provided something serious in contrast to the clichés, all of these arrangements not only help him to make his film better but also make matters worse. Personally, I think that Three Monkeys with its cold, fearful atmosphere and brutal characters was nothing but practice for Ceylan’s masterpiece three years later, Once Upon A Time in Anatolia [7], in which nature again plays a major role.

In Once Upon Time in Anatolia, a buried body is hard to find and a night must pass for a secret to be revealed. Some men are looking for something in nature, which seems unwilling to reveal it. It’s interesting that when the body is discovered nobody stops searching because nature has reminded all of them about the wounds in their souls. The film is a fantastic example of balancing fiction and reality with this duality being the main reason for the changes in the men’s perspectives. Nature knows and is keeping their deepest secrets. For example, the opening scene of the film portrays a police officer talking to his doctor. He says that sometimes he goes out into nature to shoot with his gun, which helps him to relax. The sound of gunfire is mixed with a breeze blowing through wheat and a light which magnifies its yellowness. The camera captures his sad expression while he looks at nature.

This mysterious aspect of nature mixed with the officer’s voice points to a secret while the shots that move slowly from behind him to in front of him suggest the relationship between nature and Ceylan’s characters. These stylistic arrangements have been made for both the doctor and the police officer. It looks like they all have dark secrets to hide. Nature has a direct relationship with the inner worlds of the characters in Ceylan’s cinema, which is why revealing a secret from others is unpleasant. The light, bitter laugh which is imposed on the film also emphasizes on the act of revealing. Some people want to uncover a dark secret but nature reminds them of their ruined souls and their dark secrets. At the end of the film, nobody cares about the secret or even the death of a human being because they are all the living dead.

Nature and the main character in Winter Sleep [8], act similarly since they are both cold and soulless. The opening shot shows a boiling land which has a point in common with Aydin’s inner world. He is just as mysterious and complex as the village itself and he attracts people but no one can attract him. Just like the rough and untouched nature around him, everyone stays for a while and then passes. Instead of slow motion movements of camera in Anatolia, nature is observed through just one character’s perspective, which is Aydin. Just like Isa in Climates, Aydin is surrounded by nature. In the opening shot of the movie the camera captures him from behind while he gazes through a window. Symmetrically, at the end of the film Aydin’s wife, Nihal, stares at him, which gives the impression that nature and Aydin overlap. It seems that, just like Aydin, she is looking at an outcast who has been captivating her. Winter Sleep is about the people who have passed from being the wanderers and are now parts of nature. As can be seen, Aydin is not capable of leaving this condition for a while.

Just like Ceylan’s other films, Winter Sleep has a metaphorical scene in which Aydin is looking for a horse and, a moment later, finds the creature breathless and exhausted, which is the same as Aydin’s condition. Just like the horse, which is released in the final scenes, Aydin wants to leave nature but is incapable of finding a destination so he stays. It seems that the more Ceylan’s films proceed, the more his characters are bound to their solid worlds and are incapable or unwilling to come to the mad world. It is just the same for Idris in The Wild Pear Tree [9]. He is a retired teacher who, after years of teaching the new generations of the world, exiles himself to loneliness in a very remote village. Idris hopes to resurrect a dry well for supplying water to an abounded part of the city. In a sensational scene, a boy who once blamed his father for taking such a useless job, is now smashing rocks to try finding the water and to restore his father’s hope. The Wild Pear Tree is about a young writer, Sinan, who does not know how to publish his book. He is also connected to nature with his father acting like a motivator. He leaves his family and finds refuge in nature, which acts as a bridge that makes a relationship between Sinan and The Pear Tree, which looks like it is Sinan himself. There is a scene in which both the father and the son are stretched out under the tree and it seems that they have refuge in nature away from the chaotic world. As mentioned above, some camera and editing arrangements build the relationship between Sinan and nature. For example, the camera slowly moves from behind Sinan and then cuts to his face to show his feelings about nature. This is Ceylan’s last film and also his most tragic because it ends with the lonely Sinan hating his homeland but having no choice but to return to it.

From a famous writer to Sinan himself, everyone in The Wild Pear Tree is experiencing loneliness, which is ironically the only way for them to survive. The boredom of the characters is reflected in the much more desolate image of nature than is seen in the other films. Just like Aydin in Winter Sleep, who is determined to leave everything, even releasing himself from nature itself, the characters in The Wild Pear Tree are looking for a new way but there might be no way to do such a thing. This is the most tragic point of Ceylan’s last film, in which neither a young man nor the old Aydin can change.

The disappearance of the characters in Ceylan’s cinema is inevitable and, just like the woman in Climates, they disappear into nature in order to take refuge to. They want themselves to be obedient victims. This is the time to judge whether nature is cruel or kind. Personally, I don’t think that nature can be judged in these films. It is beautiful in Ceylan’s cinema but this beauty has nothing to do with kindness and its cruelty is conditional. This beauty is deadly.

Human essence

Most of the Ceylan’s characters act like the teacher in Winter Sleep, a man who is too talkative, which is a habit that he notes resulted from his childhood stuttering. He mentions that now the problem is solved but instead he involuntarily talks too much. This is just like Ceylan’s films, which have evolved from a silent film to become heavily based on dialogue. The dialogue in all of his films, especially the last three, emphasizes that it’s a very important trait of the characters through which they cannot be judged.

For example, Aydin is angry about his tenants because they are incapable of paying their rent and he disrespects his wife and humiliates his sister. Do these actions make him bad? He is sad about the poor living conditions of the tenants and he advises his wife on the importance of controlling the family’s financial issues because he knows the bitter taste of poverty from his childhood. He is also angry at his sister because she has made a mistake. Now is he really bad? It’s true that all of the characters make mistakes but the causes of these mistakes are explained so well that the audience is convinced that they should not be judged. This is one of the reasons why the film has a lot of long dialogues.

The long dialogues in Winter Sleep, especially Aydin’s quarrel with his sister, suggest that he is right in some aspects. This is also the case in his bitter conversation with Nihal, in which we he is not the cliché controlling husband, as we feel the sense of love between them. The dialogues are the best sources for knowing the characters in Ceylan’s cinema and they provide a lens through which we can see the characters beyond simple categories of good and evil, just like we see ourselves with more nuance. After the police officers in Anatolia reveal that the real father was Kenan and not Yasar, although Kenan has committed a crime, the audience feels pity for him instead of hatred. The characters in The Wild Pear Tree have the same condition. The father has lost everything because of gambling and Sinan cannot forgive him but he is so complicated that the audiences would not be able judge him, just like Isa in Climates when he leaves his lover behind. Ceylan’s characters, just like his films, are mysterious and everything that they do has its own roots and reasons. Even the unfaithful wife in Three Monkeys cannot be condemned since her complexity and her dialogue indicates her inner world, as revealed by the incredible performance of the actor with all of her regrets, fake smiles, permanent sorrow, and inseparable relationship with nature. Sometimes she is kind and sometimes she is cruel. She is obliged to do so.

[1] Koza (1995) [2] Kasaba (1997) [3] Mayis Sikintisi (1999) [4] Uzak (2002) [5] Iklimler (2006) [6] Three Monkeys (2008) [7] Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da (2011) [8] Kis Uykusu (2014) [9] Ahlat Agachi (2018)



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