Distant (Day 91)
My Opinion: 6.7 || Patient character study that does too little with its subject matter. The film’s attentiveness is admirable, but closely observed details are not enough if they don’t lead to insights or deeper feeling.
TITLE: Distant (Uzak)
DIRECTOR: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
LANGUAGE: Turkish | COUNTRY: Turkey
PROFILE: Drama | 110 minutes | IMDb (7.5)
SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of Netflix): Mahmut (Muzzafer Özdemir), a divorced, hermit-like photographer, lets his dopey cousin Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak) live with him for a while in Istanbul while Yusuf looks for a job so he can support his family in their native Turkish village. The distance — and silence — between the two lonely, depressed men soon grows to intolerance, on Mahmut’s part, of the chaos Yusuf has brought into his life. Nuri Bilge Ceylan directs this intimate drama.
Strengths & Weaknesses: I loved Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2011 film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and came into this one with high hopes. While it shares Anatolia’s deep focus on interpersonal dynamics and the textures of everyday life, it lacks that film’s absorbing cinematography, moral dimensions, and grace notes.
Ceylan has a great feel for how humans interact with one another, their small worries and weaknesses intersecting. It’s an aesthetic of tiny textures: If the picture is large (such as the murder that consumes Anatolia), he’ll focus on the fine lines — the flickering candle, the awkward mistakes. If the picture is already small (the etiquette of house guests in Distant), he’ll look for the threads that tie strands together.
That’s a noble approach to cinema and storytelling, and it can be brilliantly effective. Andrei Tarkovsky is evoked three times in Distant (more to follow), and his influence is all over Anatolia. Both directors can be maddening in their refusal to construct a narrative. They take the admonition show don’t tell a step further — hint don’t show.
In exchange for limited plot development, action, and character development, we gain access to transcendent moments — the kind that can emerge only in a condition of cultivated quiet. Anatolia, for instance, features a night-time scene of small movements and astonishing beauty. It’s a scene that couldn’t exist with the same power in a nosier movie. The problem with Distant is that it delivers authenticity but never those moment of transporting intensity.
With little plot or visual interest, the weight of the film falls on atmosphere and character. Ceylan does a decent job with atmosphere, and there are a few pretty images of Istanbul, but the feel and culture of the city are not rendered with any great clarity. So, the characters . . .
Characters/Performances: Mahmut and Yusuf are thoroughly believable — both seem plucked out of real life — and Ceylan is never condescending in his treatment of them. Nor, happily, is there any hint of contrivance in their odd-couple relationship.
However, we wait in vain for Ceylan to explore the characters rather than simply observing them. Although we follow the men closely we never actually become close. It’s as if Ceylan decided the only way to convey their distance from one another was to make us distant from them too.
Here’s the appropriate question, for any film like this: Do we know the characters better in the 90th minute than we do in the 20th? If the answer is not really, it begs the question of why we needed the other 70 minutes. We do learn things about Mahmut and Yusuf, but our understanding of them is not appreciably deeper at the end than it was at the outset. Their essential characteristics are established early on, and the rest of the film is devoted to embellishing those characteristics, not delving into them.
Best Moment: The film’s most memorable scene is an early one in which the purported intellectual Mahmut subjects his uncultured houseguest to a VHS of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. After several minutes of watching the characters rattle down empty tracks, Yusuf has had enough. He goes to bed, and Mahmut immediately switches in a porn tape. When Yusuf suddenly returns, Mahmut quickly flips to regular television — and then becomes irritated at Yusuf for being entertained by the lowbrow programming. It’s a moment of light (very light) comedy and provides the movie’s clearest insight into Mahmut’s character.
File Under: slow, character study, house guests, Tarkovsky, photography, Istanbul, Nuri Bilge Ceylan