A Tarkovskian Praise to Vacuity

in 22nd Istanbul Film Festival

by Ikbal Zalila

Uzak is the third feature of Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It is also the winner of the Turkish national competition of the 19th festival of Istanbul.

Distant tells the story of an encounter between Mahmut a mid-forties divorced photographer living in Istanbul and his cousin Yusuf a mid-twenties unemployed countryman who came to the city to find a job in the marine sector.

Mahmut lives in a very tidy flat and the arrival of Yusuf is considered by Mahmut as a kind of agression towards his small well-ordered world. Mahmut’s flat is much more than a place where he sleeps, he works there too. This space summarizes his whole universe since he has chosen a kind of internal exile as a way of life. Mahmut seems to have resigned from everything. He’s distant from the external world. His life is organized around a few rituals. The beer he drinks every day in the same bar at the same table, the sex affair he’s having with a woman who comes, undresses and leaves without saying a word.

Yusuf is at the antipodes. He comes to the city to find a job, he tries as much as he can not to disturb his cousin’s world.In the beginning he sees Mahmut as a model of success. His efforts to build a communication bridge between him and Mahmut fail and he’s progressivly contaminated by his cousin’s vacuity. He keeps wandering in the city in search of a love affair. His failure to get a job makes him decide to go back home.

We have here all the ingedients of the classical movie about the conflict between the urban and the rural world and the way the city changes people. Even if this sociological perspective does exist in the film it only serves as a background. Reading this movie as a sociological essay would be too reductive and may lead to a misunderstanding of the author’s intention.

The director’s purpose goes much further and deals more with cinematographic issues.

The strength of this film lies on its faculty to express by cinematographic means a man’s feeling of nonsense and meaninglessness of everyday life.

Yusuf’s character is merely a pretence to get into Mahmut’s world. He witnesses then experiences -as we do as viewers- his cousin’s colourless life. He might be considered too as a person who could help Mahmut to be more attentive to what’s going on around him in the real world, but this issue is also misleading as far as nothing occurs between the two and Mahmut remains distant from his cousin.

The dialogue between the two main characters (let’s say the only real characters) are scarce and strictly limited to ordinary conversation, the author does not give us any clue about the photographer’s internal exile (he might feel guilty towards the woman he divorced and who became sterile after he obliged her to have an abortion).

Moreover, in terms of action, nothing happens, there is no evolution of the main characters.

Mahmut’s psychological motivation (if he’s got any) remains opaque for the viewer, the only relevant thing that happens to him is that he quit smoking and started to smoke again in the last shot of the film, Yusuf’s dream to enroll in the marines falls apart and he decides to go back to the country.

So what’s “Uzak” about? This movie deals with vacuity, with the flowing away of time and the way the camera grasps it.

Time here is straitly connected to space, the space “par excellence” in this movie , Mahmut’s flat, where everything and nothing happens. Aesthetically, the director has privileged the mise en scene. Nuri Bilge Ceylan is Takovskian, his main character too (we see him at two different moments of the film watching a Tarkovsky’s videotape).

The long takes in the flat make the viewer get progressively into the main character’s mood and then experience this passing of time. They also make possible the preservation of the unity of the main space.

This aesthetical “parti-pris” gives the audience the opportunity to witness simultaneously two different attitudes towards space. The use of depth of the field shows this quite impossible co-existence of two bodies which happen to meet without communicating.

Mahmut’s attitude towards this space is possessive. It is domesticated and quite obsessively ruled he pays attentiom to even the tiniest details:he puts spray on his cousin’s stinking shoes, he regularly controls the trap he put in the kitchen to catch mice, he forbids his cousin to smoke anywhere other than in the kitchen, he arranges the shoes in a special drawer.

This harmony comes to be somehow altered by Yusuf’s presence. It takes him a long time before he gets used to the perfect order commanding the house.

As time goes by this emptiness of Mahmut’s life reaches us. We feel involved in these so odd but also so familiar moments of a person’s life where everything seems meaningless.