'Distant' Close to Perfect
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2004; Page WE37
"DISTANT," a moving character piece from Nuri Bilge Ceylan, clearly derives some of its sensibilities from the hallowed cinematic churches of Andrei Tarkovsky and Yasujiro Ozu (and there's a little Chekhov, too, in his approach). Following the protracted tension between two lonely Turkish men, it at first seems to be about nothing, a minute-to-minute observation of two uneventful, frustrating lives.
Ultimately, it becomes a movie about the feeling of being alive, the sensation of existence. It's a movie, in a way, about everything.
One of the men is Mahmut (Muzaffer Ozdemir), a bearded, quiet photographer in Istanbul who has divorced his wife. He has a job, taking shots of objects for a commercial business. But he's essentially alone and lonely. There is a woman with whom he spends time on occasion; and he reaches for the odd porn video, too. Surrounded by books and photographs, he keeps a clean house. He's set in his ways and heading nowhere.
When his younger cousin Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak) comes to visit, Mahmut's comfortably self-contained routine is broken. The visitor, who hails from the same village as Mahmut, has lost his factory job. He hangs around the port, looking for any kind of work. His hope is to find a job on a luxury cruiser that travels around the world. He has no luck. There's a nationwide recession.
Yusuf, not a particularly attractive man with an ungainly bump on the side of his face, is a slob who smokes all over the house, leaves food lying around and, when he's not looking for a job, starts following a woman around town who strikes his fancy.
Mahmut is stuck with him.
There are seemingly banal events that, because of the claustrophobic nature of their new, mutual existence, become bigger. There's a mouse loose in the house, for instance, for which Mahmut has set a trap of sticky paper. Its unseen presence is another source of tension. And in a passingly comical moment, Mahmut gets caught in the sticky stuff.
"Distant," which won the grand jury prize at Cannes in 2003 for its cinematography and the acting prize for the two principal performances, works subtly on the senses and the brain. A story that observes silent behavior as much as talk, that looks down streets and sees things we normally wouldn't notice, it's a movie of powerful accumulation. The compositions are masterful, especially the snow-covered scenes in Istanbul and, most memorably, the spectacle of an overturned ship in the wintry harbor.
It's clear that Ceylan, who wrote, directed, shot, produced and co-edited this film, is part of the exclusive circle of global cinematic visionaries. (His earlier "Clouds of May," about village life in Turkey, which was shown at Cannes, too, is another stunner.) But his work is not gratuitous artistry. Everything blends into one touching experience. You could never expect, for example, that the sight of a mouse caught on sticky paper could move you to tears. In Ceylan's movie, you're seeing more than a pest that has been caught. The animal is a telling metaphor for Yusuf's life, and yet another echo of the distance between people, around people, within people and everywhere.
DISTANT (UZAK) (Unrated, 110 minutes) -- Contains sexual situations, nudity and some obscenity. In Turkish with subtitles (though there is little dialogue). At Landmark's E Street Cinema.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company