The miracle of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Distant” is that it continuously absorbs, even when not much is going on – which it is most of the time. Photographer before becoming the dean of Turkish filmmakers, Ceylan is a master of existential angst and of the transfigured daily life whose films invite contemplation.
Relaunched for a week at the Film Forum in a new digital restoration, “Distant” – which opened in the US in 2004, after winning the second-highest prize at Cannes – looks even better than I remembered.
The brief pre-credit sequence is emblematic of Ceylon’s style. A small figure plods through a snowy field in what appears to be real time, accompanied by ambient sounds. There follows a slow pan towards the road, slightly in front of the vehicle which will take him to Istanbul. Immanence is everything.
An unemployed factory worker, Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak) arrives in the city with vague hopes of shipping to the sea. While chasing a job search, he stays with his older cousin Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir ), a commercial photographer with abandoned artistic aspirations. (If Mahmut might be the director’s unflattering self-portrait, Yusuf was played by Ceylon’s real-life cousin, tragically killed in a car crash before the film’s release.)
Well-off enough to afford his alienation, Mahmut has a decent apartment in a nice neighborhood, but his emotions are as frozen as the snow that covers the city. “Remote” often feels weather-driven. (Ceylon’s next film, about a marital breakdown in which he co-starred with his wife, was called “Climates.”)
Frustrated, each in their own way, the cousins struggle to identify with each other. Yusuf is a bit of an asshole. Mahmut is a curmudgeon who spends most of his evenings laid off in front of his TV (going from a Tarkovsky movie to – when Yusuf leaves the room – porn). Mahmut’s immobility is parodied by the duct tape he puts down every night in hopes of trapping the mouse that lives in his kitchen.
Although his mood of delighted sadness is his own, Ceylan has affinities with Michelangelo Antonioni (sense of bourgeois remoteness), Yasujiro Ozu (exquisite and discreet compositions), Robert Bresson (precise use of sound) or Jacques Tati (humor deadpan).
Steeped in a sense of foreboding, “Distant” seems to promise crime – not least because Yusuf has a habit of following women down the street. In a biting joke, he drags a woman through a park, inadvertently makes eye contact with another prowler, then hastily hides when the woman’s date shows up.
The transgression ultimately comes from an act of omission, rather of commission, so wicked and petty that it seems upsetting. As the fate of the mouse suggests, Ceylon has a sense of discreet symbols. New York Times reviewer Elvis Mitchell, while generally unenthusiastic (“almost like a fun take on “The Odd Couple”), acknowledged that “Distant” required a second viewing “to take effect”.
In the final scene, Mahmut sits alone by the port, smoking a cigarette from a pack Yusuf left behind. His angst is palpable. There’s no particular reason to feel sorry for this guy, except that he’s human and alone.
from May 20 to 26 at the Film Forum in Manhattan; filmforum.org.