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Mismatched pair connect

Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's 'Distant' is a moving tale of modern society, told with great artistry.

September 24, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

It's hard to say what's most remarkable about "Distant": the out-of-nowhere success it had at the Cannes film festival, the singular work habits of its Turkish director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, or what a beautifully made, unapologetically artistic piece of work it is. Maybe it's the combination of all three that makes this such an exceptional effort.

"Distant" not only won the Grand Prix at Cannes, traditionally considered the festival's runner-up prize, but it took the best actor award as well for its pair of costars, Muzaffer Ozdemir and Mehmet Emin Toprak. The latter was a young actor who'd just died in a tragic auto accident, driving home to show his mother another award.

Though you'd never know it by looking at its pristine images, Ceylan made "Distant" on a $100,000 budget, partially by serving as writer, producer, cinematographer and co-editor. He likes working close to the ground, with crew and family members sometimes doubling as actors. As he told an interviewer, "we can shoot for as long as we like, no deadlines, the camera is mine, the lights are mine. It is not exactly a one-man show, but it is my way of making a film."

All this would be of no more than incidental interest if Ceylan didn't turn out to be such a gifted filmmaker. This is only his third feature (the first two will have a rare big-screen showing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Oct. 1 and 2), but he already shows himself to be in careful and deliberate command of cinema's resources.

Ceylan has an exact sense of what he wants to do and how he wants to do it. From its opening vista of a young man walking across a snowy plain, every shot in "Distant" reveals the filmmaker's impeccable eye for framing and composition. He is a formal director who almost never cuts within a scene, but each image is such a thing of beauty that we are constantly grateful for his taste and discretion.

But all this visual reserve doesn't mean, as it well might, that Ceylan is going to sacrifice his characters' humanity. Perhaps because of the close-knit quality of his filmmaking style, his actors never lose their naturalness, to the point where it's easy to forget they are acting at all.

This is true with "Distant" even though, as its title indicates, it is a film about loneliness and lack of connection, about the anomie that seems to be one of the defining characteristics of modern society. It's a film about two men, distantly related, who are thrown into living together, and the disruptions that inevitably result.

Most of "Distant" takes place in Istanbul, in the apartment of Mahmut (Ozdemir), an established commercial photographer. But his success seems only to depress Mahmut: He now so pessimistically insists "photography is finished" that a colleague chides him, "you're announcing your death before it happens."

Into Mahmut's ordered, almost obsessive life comes Yusuf (Toprak), a distant relative from the country. Driven to the city by the closing of the local factory, Yusuf is eager for a job on a boat ("There's no economic crisis at sea," he insists) and is confident he'll only need to crash for a week before he gets work and sets sail.

From a practical point of view, Yusuf and Mahmut are a classic Oscar and Felix "Odd Couple," the former's hang-dog sloppiness and constant smoking acting as a constant irritant to the latter's unrelenting fussiness.

But it is one of the fascinations of "Distant" that the longer we observe these two, the more they seem to have in common, especially in their inability to connect, not only with each other but also with women. They exist in parallel hermetic worlds, outside of life in equal measure but not in the same way.

Mahmut has a mistress, but their interaction is so desultory we never hear them exchange a word. He has an ex-wife as well, but she is about to emigrate to Canada with her new husband. He has a 50-channel TV, but nothing interests him but erotica. More and more, less and less connects him to life.

Yusuf would like to be connected to life, but he can't figure out how to do it. He looks longingly at Istanbul's sophisticated women but, in one of the film's dryly humorous running jokes, whenever he works up enough nerve to think about approaching one, a rival male appears to whisk her away. Yusuf is ill at ease in Istanbul but considers it the future and is loath to leave.

Resolving these issues is not in the cards for "Distant"; filmmaker Ceylan, a devotee of Chekhov, is much more interested in observation than resolution.

"I do not like extraordinary stories which happen to ordinary people," Ceylan told a journalist. "I like ordinary stories of ordinary people."

In his hands, however, the everyday turns out to be the least ordinary thing of all.



MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Adult subject matter

Muzaffer Ozedmir ... Mahmut

Mehmet Emin Toprak ... Yusuf

Zuhal Gencer Erkaya ... Nazan

Nazan Kirilmis ... Lover

Feridun Koc ... Janitor

An NBC Film production, released by New Yorker Films. Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Producer Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Screenplay Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Cinematographer Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Editors Ayhan Ergursel, Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Art director Ebru Ceylan. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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