"Distant" is a Turkish variation on the old country-mouse, city-mouse fable, about an urban sophisticate suddenly forced to live in intimacy with his cousin from the boondocks.
Maybe it's something else entirely that I'm not really smart enough to see into, but which I sense, lurking somewhere behind the screen.
In the first interpretation, the movie is straightforward, droll, brutally honest and arresting, if somewhat stately in progress. It begins with poor Yusuf (Emin Toprak) leaving home one frozen morning in the far, beautiful but bleak provinces, for the long hitch into the big town of Istanbul. He arrives at Mahmut's apartment and confidently rings the buzzer. No answer. Mahmut (Muzaffer Ozdemir) has forgotten that Yusuf is arriving.
Thus Yusuf spends the first day of what he hopes will be the rest of his glorious life ingloriously: He sits on the curb outside in the cold and waits and waits and waits. Finally Mahmut shows up and finds him snoozing in the foyer.
The situation soon clarifies: Mahmut is a commercial photographer, a small-town boy made good, a womanizer, desperately lonely, an intellectual, an artist (the apartment could be a professor's) and tried and true in the ways of the city. He's locked in an affair with a woman who will not leave her husband for him. Yusuf has lost his rural job (the factory has closed) and is hoping to find work on one of Istanbul's many steamers or tankers. Mahmut agrees to put him up until that time, even if the poor schmo isn't quite clever enough to bring it off.
Basically, that's the movie. One wanders trying to find a life, while the other hides from life, feeling the intellectual's isolation and perverse pleasure in despair. Little things get on Mahmut's nerves, as it turns out; he's become fastidious in bachelor's ways, and he can't really stand to have his privacy and sense of intimacy violated by a big boob in a truly ugly sweater. You know where it's headed: When Felix finally leaves, the garrulous Oscar will, surprisingly, miss him profoundly.
That's what I think. And that's a Western secularist's view, unexpanded by any spiritual meaning. But possibly there's this other meaning. It's possible this is a Muslim's denunciation of secular Muslims, who have embraced the Western lifestyle at the expense of their souls. In this interpretation, the director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, isn't wryly amused but furiously scornful. We are meant not to laugh at the fussy Mahmut but to loathe him.
The evidence for this interpretation is entirely visual: It seems that everywhere Mahmut travels, a mosque on the horizon (including the great one at Santa Sofia) seems to mock him. Minarets pierce the air everywhere. They are a part of the texture of the film. Mahmut is blind, therefore, to what is obvious to believers, which is the omnipresence of religious architecture, which stands for the omnipotence of Allah. Possibly what we are witnessing is the dry, ascetic condemnation of those who have turned from the One True Faith to the West. The urban character is not only distant from his cousin but distant from his God.
Distant (110 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated but contains some sexual situations.