Dark clouds: Breathtaking anxiety overwhelms the characters in Nuri Bilge Ceylan Three Monkeys.

Suspense, Stillness and Beauty in 'Three Monkeys'

Dennis Harvey June 26, 2009

When Nuri Bilge Ceylan won the Best Director prize at Cannes last year for Three Monkeys—which opens on the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki Friday—it couldn’t have been much of a surprise. He’d been winning awards since his first feature (1997’s Kasaba a.k.a. Small Town), including prior Cannes ones for Distant (2002) and Climates (2006), while Clouds of May (1999) was nominated for the Golden Bear at Berlin.

That’s pretty heady achievement for a 50-year-old director who’s only worked in film since 1995 (debuting with the short Koza), and whose five features to date haven’t yet fully distracted him from his other creative pursuit as a photographer. (It’s a craft that’s very much present in the painstaking beauty of his films’ typically stationary shots.) But then Ceylan hardly seems the beneficiary of mere luck, or fashion: He’s a serious artist whose movies explore in poetical, minimalist fashion the alienation of individual lives in (as he’s put it) "my beautiful and lonely country, which I love passionately."

If more loneliness than love is reflected in these somber dramas, nonetheless the poker-faced scrutiny with which Ceylan regards his usually ill-fortuned characters is a form of passion in itself.

Three Monkeys—presumably the ones who see, hear, and speak no evil, though here everyone seems to perceive nothing but evil—is about family dissolving in circumstances that might have been played for crime-melodrama suspense. But the mood here is rather one of existential doom, set in a grey-sky world that seems drained of hope and kindness from the start.

Falling asleep at the wheel during a solo drive late one night, high-ranking politician Servet (Ercan Kesal) kills a pedestrian. Terrified of punishment and losing public face, he persuades longtime chauffeur Eyup (Yavuz Bingol) to take the rap for him in exchange for a considerable payoff. While Eyup is stuck in prison for months (and off-screen for nearly an hour), his long-suffering wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan) and surly son Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Sungar) petition Servet for the bribe money in advance.

By the time Eyup is released, all sorts of tensions are drawn tight: Between Hacer and Servet (they’ve apparently had an affair in the meantime, but he wants nothing more to do with her); between mother and the rudderless, resentful son; between wife and a returned husband who now regards her every action and word as suspect. Indeed, everybody pushes Hacer around. While no one here is innocent, it’s clear that the nearest available woman is the likeliest to be victimized when men are angry or frustrated.

With its elliptical narrative, avoidance of obvious "action" scenes (including the actual accident that sets things in motion) and very deliberate pace, Three Monkeys demands patience—though director of photography Gokhan Tiryaki’s immaculate widescreen compositions certainly make the viewer’s task easier. Ceylan’s Turkey may be lonely, but it is indeed beautiful.