“You knew this was a three-hour-and-twenty-minute movie, right?”
So said San Francisco Film Society programmer Rod Armstrong, to mostly enthusiastic murmurs from a sizable crowd, while introducing Winter Sleep at the Kabuki Theater the other night. Allowing that running time can be a factor in these things, Armstrong lamented the unfortunate truth that last year’s Cannes champ, from Turkish art-house deity Nuri Bilge Ceylan, had never found a big-screen booking in San Francisco — that is, until the Film Society managed to sneak it in as a late addition to the SFIFF. He added that it was heartening to see such a good turnout on the day the movie happened also to be coming out on DVD.
It is worth renting. Part of what makes Ceylan one of the great directors, for the big screen or whatever screen you have available, is that his way of making movies is like lighting a candle and being with it for the whole burn. Simple, and yet not so. In Winter Sleep, a wealthy actor (Haluk Bilginer) has retired to a rural mountain village in the honeycombs of Cappadocia, where human dwellings are carved directly into rock. With his wife (Melisa Sözen), who works at fundraising for local schools, and his sister (Demet Akbag), who works at recovering from a divorce, he lives in a high-altitude hotel, inherited from his father, and rents out the shabbier properties in the town below. And when not musing on the “thick, serious book” he intends, someday, to write about the history of Turkish theater, our man busies himself with a mostly unread patrician newspaper column about local issues as he sees them, like a mini George Will of the steppes. Meanwhile some of his tenants have fallen on hard times, but the landlord has delegated actual business dealings to his right-hand man (Ayberk Pekcan). These are not the makings of light comedy.
Hibernation is what the movie’s original title really means, which is to say a long self-protective stretch of unconsciousness. Winter here is a time for the mixed blessing of really tucking in — and the quiet burning irony of restlessness. Ceylan, with writing and life partner Ebru Ceylan, doesn’t flinch from psychological dredge work. Characters come under scrutiny, from each other and gradually from themselves. They have several long conversations about the nature of everyday evil and how to thwart it. Quarrels become battles — complete with breakthroughs, regressions, exhausted lulls, and variously honest performances of self-exposure.
Ceylan’s prior film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was a murder mystery etched out of piercing silence. This one is chattier, differently intense, and admittedly not everybody’s cup of deep dark Turkish coffee. One can imagine the Winter Sleep script getting workshop notes — “cut all this stuff way down!” — for just about every scene. But there is exhilaration in how puny it reveals the average motion-picture product of workshop notes to be. The story is acknowledgedly Chekhovian, with people seeming richly like people instead of mere characters, mostly sitting around and talking through the sore spots of their marriages, or the fault lines of social strata. And like Chekhov, Ceylan understands that empathy for those souls made uneasy by a world that’s changing without their permission does not preclude irritation at their sense of entitlement.
Time is useful to this understanding, and part of what justifies the film’s length is its patient determination to sync up with the real speed of life. Also, cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki shares Ceylan’s mature manner of nature appreciation, through which snowfall and firelight can seem cozy and protective or stark and pitiless, depending on the mood you’re in. Either way, it’s elemental stuff, and there is finally a sense of purification at play here, a hope that hibernation may allow for some kind of needed renewal after all. Really, the only thing too long about Winter Sleep is the amount of time it’s taken for us to finally get a good look at it.