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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Wise Monkey See, Wise Monkey No Do
by Donald Levit

Festival awards have done little to sell Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s six previous features and one short, not even to listing in Maltin. Cannes Palme d'Or and FIPRESCI Winter Sleep may change that after its New York première opening of the Museum of Modern Art’s sold-out “Filmmaker in Focus.” Included in that full retrospective plus an appearance by the filmmaker, is the 2008 Three Monkeys/Üç maymun, one of Turkey’s earlier submissions of his work for the Language Other Than English Oscar.

Characteristic of the director/co-writer/-editor/-producer’s narratives (as here, often in collaboration with actress/short filmmaker/art director wife Ebru) the hundred-nine minutes is talky without many words, a slow revelation of situation, character depth and relationships within a reduced framework, that taken together will remind the thoughtful of the Ingmar Bergman approach.

It is a play for four characters where much must be extrapolated behind spare speech (subtitled from Turkish), half-cropped angled facial close-ups emphasizing hooded eyes, and limited constrictive settings that are so bleached of color as to appear fluorescent lit or sepia and often depth-of-field unfocused in favor of a foreground face or silhouetted figure.

If the puzzle of a title in fact refers to the Japanese monkeys who turn away and ignore evil, then that evil would be unintentional albeit initially selfish and finding fertile ground in an atmosphere conditioned by an only superficially suppressed past tragedy. Eyüp (folk singer Yavuz Bingöl) is offered what for the sake of his family he cannot refuse. Servet (third co-screenwriter Ercan Kesal), the businessman for whom he chauffeurs, has killed a man in a rainy hit-and-run and fears that adverse publicity will in turn kill his infant political career. For salary during incarceration and a lump sum upon release, the poor employee will give a false confession, take the rap, and serve a supposed half-year sentence that turns out three months longer.

In their lower working-class flat, claustrophobic in spite of a concrete balcony and Bosporus views over a highway and train tracks, await his wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan) and feckless son Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Sungar). Her passive sultriness and unspecified dissatisfaction just hinted at, she works in an institutional kitchen and prods the twentyish Ismail to apply himself to university studies or find a job and stop hanging around with bummy friends and getting into the occasional fight.

Son whines that he needs to buy a car to get around for work, so mother goes to Servet’s office for an advance payment and finds the wealthy married-with-child boss obscene and angry at his political mentor and recent overwhelming election defeat, but willing to fork over the cash in return for sexual favors, at least during her husband’s time away.

The painful decision she makes is not a tremendous surprise, although, even taking the revealed past into consideration, what develops from it is not in keeping with the rest of the tale and even less so with her otherwise listlessness. Perhaps she and Ismail simply enter and exit another world when passing down the steps and through a train underpass. As with too many films, cell phones play a part in development as well as resolution, though it can be argued that such holds true in real life nowadays, as well. Secrets will out, not only where the many are privy but also, it seems, where there are but a very few.

Of blood or sex there is none on the screen. Rather, people are adumbrated through translucent dimpled upper-door glass or spied upon through a keyhole (reversed in that what it reveals is the observer eye, not the observed). Road kill and fistfights, a confrontation and a murder are offstage, a suicide no more than contemplated. Violence is inward, only once overflowing into unsuspected franticness. An isolated medium-long shot, the final act, after another offer, mirrors an opening one. In humans’ small hermetic existence, the players are circled, trapped by who they are more than where.

(Released by Zeitgeist Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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