“Distant” is an arthouse film par excellence, a consummately made study of loneliness and frustration that confirms the emerging talent of Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan that was on display in earlier pics (the 1997 “The Small Town” and 2000’s “Clouds of May”). “Distant” is an example of cinema that quietly and profoundly delves into the lives of its characters but provides little in the way of overt narrative, meaning some viewers will become infuriated. However, the patient viewer will be greatly rewarded by the gradually revealed emotions and by the sheer beauty of the director’s minimalist style (think early Antonioni or late Angelopoulos). Fests should be lining up for this, and, although the theatrical market, especially in English-speaking territories, will be very hard to crack, some enterprising distribs should take a serious look.
Ceylan is the complete filmmaker. He produced “Distant” for his own company, wrote the screenplay, was responsible for the beauteous photography and is credited as co-editor. He clearly knows exactly what he wants, and his achievement here is major, though this character study is composed of scenes in a minor key, with no big confrontations or climaxes. Effect is from accumulated detail, and by the time the film ends the emotional charge is powerful indeed.
Pic starts with beautifully composed shot: a snow-covered village, with a minaret on a hill; early morning, the sun beginning to touch the hilltop; the sound of dogs barking in the distance; a man trudging across the snow, reaching the road that passes by the village. The shot lasts two or three minutes and speaks volumes about the place that Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak), the young protagonist, is leaving behind.
Yusuf is unemployed, along with 1,000 other villagers, since the local factory closed down. He has romantic ideas about finding work on a ship, seeing the world and earning U.S. dollars. He has arranged to stay with a relative, Mahmut (Muzaffer Ozdemir), in Istanbul until he finds employment.
Though the film begins with Yusuf, it’s mainly Mahmut’s story. He works as a photographer and has lived alone since he divorced his wife, Nazan (Zuhal Gencer Erkaya). He obviously still cares for Nazan, and they meet from time to time, but she has re-married and is about to leave, with her new husband, to live in Canada. Mahmut is quietly shattered by the news.
Before Yusuf’s arrival, Mahmut spends time with a married woman who visits him occasionally for sex; it seems not to be a close relationship, but a necessary one for Mahmut. Yusuf, with his rough-hewn village ways, has a disruptive effect on Mahmut’s solitary life. And as the visit, which was supposed to be a short one, is extended because Yusuf is unable to find employment, Mahmut becomes more and more irritable.
The theme of the film is that of the line from the Joni Mitchell song: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” and Ceylan probes that theme with intelligence and gentle precision. Bit by bit, the characters of Yusuf and, especially, Mahmut emerge with all their insecurities and vulnerabilities.
Ceylan uses sparing dialogue, no music score, a carefully composed soundtrack and even the weather — much of the film plays out in heavy snow — as commentary on the emotions of the characters.
Ozdemir’s Mahmut is a fully-rounded character. A seemingly self-reliant professional man who is set in his ways, he is in truth deeply isolated and unable to communicate either with his unwanted guest or with his ailing mother (Fatma Ceylan, the director’s mother) or sister. A sequence in which he goes to the airport and hides behind a column as he watches his ex-wife and her husband leave Turkey is immensely moving.
Toprak, who tragically died in a car accident after receiving an acting award for the film at the Turkish Film Awards, is equally good as the gauche younger man, a dreamer with no hope of achieving his dreams, and too shy to talk to the pretty city girl (Ebru Ceylan) who lives in the neighborhood.
Though not a film for everyone, “Distant” is in the best tradition of serious, elegantly made Euro cinema, assembled with pristine professionalism.