Movie Review by Stephen Doyle
Starring: Muzaffer Özdemir, Mehmet Emin Toprak, Zuhal Gencer Erkaya, Nazan Kirilmis
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
UZAK – the Grand Prix winner at Cannes 2003 – is an impressive and insightful, if slow burning, film. It is a moody character driven piece featuring two central characters who are mostly complete opposites, and in which dramatic interest is generated by the way the two characters conflict with each other. Yusuf (the good looking and very impressive Mehmet Emin Toprak, who tragically died in a car crash after making this film) is the youthful, untidy, country boy just arrived in Turkey’s capital looking for work on a ship. His richer, older cousin, the world-weary wizened city-dweller Mahmut (Muzaffer Ozdemir), puts him up. The two, with nothing more than a family tie in common, fail to get along, with things coming to a head in a powerful denouement.
It takes a while for the characters and themes to establish themselves so the early scenes seem slow moving. The film quickly becomes absorbing however, as it begins to reveal its many treasures. Take for example, the film’s depiction of Istanbul. As well as Mahmut and Yusuf, it could be argued that that there is actually a third, equally important character in UZAK – Turkey’s capital itself. Yusuf’s various lonely ramblings, as he looks for work, friendship, women or indeed anything at all to relieve his boredom and frustration, give occasion for some evocative impressions of Istanbul, reminiscent of the exhaustiveness and realism of James Joyce’s portrayal of Dublin. For Yusuf wandering around Istanbul smoking cheap cigarettes in UZAK, read Stephen Dedalus wandering around Dublin with his cane and wide-brimmed hat in ULYSSES (1967).
The film, carried by two wonderful performances in two well developed roles, is full of powerful moments. Particularly striking is the incident when the ageing Mahmut, a photographer who has renounced his early artistic convictions and now works solely for money, comes across a gorgeous landscape while driving with his cousin. For what I think is the first and only time in the movie, the melancholic expression lifts from Mahmut’s brow to be replaced by happiness and youthful enthusiasm. He tells Yusuf to set the camera up, but before Yusuf can accomplish this, Mahmut’s indefatigable indifference and world-wearyism, momentarily displaced, return. The excitement flees from his features as he says ‘F*** it, why bother?’ and he drives on, leaving the landscape unfilmed.
Another fine moment comes towards the end. Yusuf, jobless, penniless and altogether hopeless, is struggling to get to sleep in Mahmut’s flat one night. Suddenly. he notices a pathetic, incessant whining. He gets up, as does Mahmut, and they discover a scrawny little mouse caught in Mahmut’s mousetrap. The two cousins look at it silently, possibly not realising that they are every bit as stuck as the mouse. Stuck by the fetters forged by their own individual temperaments, which are preventing them from progressing through life successfully – for Mahmut it is his melancholic, reserved outlook and for Yusuf his lack of prudence and consideration. In addition to this, the two characters find themselves stuck as they struggle to weather one of Turkey’s worst ever economic crises. The mouse caught in a trap is a rather obvious symbolic gesture, but a powerful and effective one nevertheless.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this deeply gloomy film is its credibility. There is not a single scene or line of dialogue which strikes a false note. This, together with the two great naturalistic performances, and some unobtrusive direction from Nuri Bilge Ceylan, give UZAK the feel of a documentary.
Definitely worth a look.