Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest film Three Monkeys proved to me that Turkish cinema can rub shoulders with the very best in contemporary cinema. I watched the film at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) 2008, a week ago, months after it had won the Best Director award both at Cannes and at the Osian (New Delhi) film festivals earlier this year. The film is now Turkey’s deserving, official submission for the best foreign film Oscar 09. It has a certain maturity and mastery of the medium even if it follows the patterns of Tarkovsky, Terrence Mallick and Zvyagintsev, with its ability to externalize the internal feelings of individuals and catapult those feelings within the context of the well-chosen exteriors—sometimes natural environments and sometimes man-made structures. It’s a film that makes the capability of a director and art director stand out even to a village idiot viewing cinema.
The title of the film does refer to the proverbial three monkeys; one who refuses to hear, one who refuses to see, and one who refuses to speak. It is an interesting contemporary tale revolving around three adults that make up a Turkish urban nuclear family. The husband drives the car of a politician to make a living, the wife works in a kitchen of a large establishment, and their adult son is a student dreaming of owning a car. It is a tale that could take place in Turkey, or any other part of the world, suggesting that tales of individual angst fall within some external matrix that a viewer can either glimpse or reject as a cosmic play of dice.
The three “monkeys” are a husband, a wife and a son living a cohesive, stable life. A fourth character is a typical, creepy politician whose actions disrupt the tranquil life of the cohesive trio by a chain of lies, deceit, lust and avarice—all brought about by the ripple effect of an external request. Here is a tale of three essentially good people who become entwined in actions that threaten to break up their happy but mundane middle-class lives.
What is the external request that leads to the domino effect on the family? The politician falls asleep while driving a sedan and knocks down an unknown person on a remote road and the incident is noticed by a passing car. To preserve his political chances at the soon-to-be-held elections, he requests his regular driver to take the rap and go to prison for the crime he did not commit, while the politician promises to continue paying his salary and provide a large sum at the completion of his jail term. The first “monkey” gets hooked to the suggested plan that he hears.
The son dreams of a family car that could be acquired with an advance on the politician’s final payment to his father and goads his mother to meet the politician with the request. And you soon have two other “monkeys” trapped by their own innocent actions that spiral into grievous crimes because they choose not to see, hear or speak. Interestingly, each of the three persons is essentially a well-meaning, ethical individual. However, the external request of a politician to the head of the family of the trio opens up vistas for three good persons to choose deviant paths they might not have chosen otherwise.
The filmmakers go on to suggest that the pattern could spillover to upset another sedate life of a good man at the end. The cosmic tale carries on like a Shakespearean or Tolstoyan tragedy, even as dark clouds gather over the magical landscape on the coasts of the Marmara Sea or Black Sea captured with digital magic of Gokhan Tiryaki (the cinematographer of Ceylan's Climates as well). Are we individuals truly in control of what happens to us in life? This is the implicit question the film asks of the viewer. Do events in our life force us to take paths we never would have taken otherwise? Do we learn from our mistakes or prefer to make bigger mistakes like a "monkey"?
Interestingly the film itself is a product of another family—but this one is incredibly talented. The husband and wife team of Nuri Bilge Ceylan (director, editor, and writer of Three Monkeys, and actor of his earlier films Distant and Climates) and Ebru Ceylan (writer and art director of Three Monkeys, actor of Distant and Climates and an award-winning short-filmmaker) team up with Ercan Kesal (actor in Three Monkeys, playing the politician in the movie) to write up this interesting film.
The story is only a small part of the film's broad enjoyment spectrum. Take the art direction—the building in which the trio live looks imposing at the start of the movie. Only towards the end of the movie as the lives of the individuals fall apart you see the building has an imposing front but is actually a poor tenement with a fabulous view. The railroad becomes a flight path to freedom from the drudgery of the house, but tenants of the house need to cross barriers to reach the station. Interestingly, the head (and face) of the son poking out of the train window form a poster of the film, a shot that is repeated with differing expressions as the film progresses.
In this film, the husband-wife team of the Ceylans stays behind the camera. They introduce a TV actor Hatice Aslan who plays Hacer, the mother/wife role in the film. The performance is nothing short of spectacular. The sudden action of kicking up of her shoes while sitting and breaking into smiles of freedom is unforgettable; the true implications of the scene revealed to the viewer only much later.
I am forced to compare this work of Ceylan with his earlier work Climates, shown at an earlier edition of IFFK. Climates was the more demanding film of the two, dealing with quest for unattainable happiness of a husband, a wife and the husband’s lover as the events in their lives take place in parallel to the external climates of summer, fall and winter. The title itself indicated the path the director would take, even before you enter the theatre. In both Climates and Three Monkeys the interplay of relationships revolve around three individuals. But in Three Monkeys the film is comparatively more accessible for the viewer as the chracters are less complex. The plot is clear and linear, not as complicated as Climates. Yet, Three Monkeys shows Ceylan’s ability to make the viewers wonder if they could become "monkeys" given the throw of the cosmic dice. There is a single sequence of the husband paying a visit to a mosque which probably results in partial reconciliation with his wife; the film is not religious though an obvious spiritual odyssey. There are a few unexplained shots of a dead child of the family that appear as soothing images to the two men. It is a poetically rendered story captured on digital film that brings out the best in cinema today.
A small sequence in the film at the beginning of the film struck me—a car accident takes place off-screen. Hollywood and Bollywood would have shown the incident graphically. One wonders if the explosions and fires (and wrecked vehicles) that we enjoy so much in commercial cinema are contributing to the global warming. If so, filmmakers could learn from this film.
Turkish cinema has thrown up great filmmakers. Yilmaz Guney was my favourite Turkish filmmaker. Now I have added Ceylan (and his talented wife) to that list. Guney took up subjects that mirrored politics and got into trouble for that. Ceylan appears to be apolitical except for his dark universal swipe at politicians as a tribe. Or is he?
P.S. Three Monkeys is one of the author's top 100 films and one of the top 15 films of the author's top 15 films of the 21st Century. Ceylan's two subsequent films Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) and Winter Sleep (2014) have been reviewed later on this blog.