The rustic hotel at the heart of Winter Sleep is a strikingly unfamiliar place: Located somewhere in Turkey’s Anatolian countryside, perched on a rocky slope, the buildings seem to emerge directly from the stone of the hillside itself. The cave-like setting might suggest we have not evolved very far from our primitive ancestors, an implication supported by the film’s portrait of psychological cruelty and selfish behavior. In the course of 196 slow minutes, we discover the world of Aydin (Haluk Bilginer, from Rosewater), who inherited the inn and is now running it after working as an actor for many years. He also inherited a bunch of local rental properties, the income from which allows him to sit around penning op-ed newspaper essays while washing his hands of the economic woes of his tenants.
The best films I saw during my week at the Vancouver Film Festival were Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Béla Tarr’s incomparable The Turin Horse. Both ran two hours plus. The storytelling in the former unreels slowly, cumulatively, so mysteriously that if you don’t watch with intense concentration, you’ll miss moments when everything racks focus. The narrative in Tarr’s masterpiece is terrifyingly repetitive and monotonous, in the Beckettian sense, like a great engine grinding itself ever deeper into a hole, in circular slow motion that you fear might go on forever.
And, yes, each movie was mesmerizing, formally stunning in its exposure of the human condition. These are works that show us the skull beneath every skin, the darkness that threatens all our light, and the absurdity of our strivings to signify. I know what you’re saying: Why would I want to sit through such downers, deliberate excursions into angst and despair? My answer is always the same: How can you not? What would a thinking person do without artists like Tarr or Ceylan or Shakespeare or Goya who challenge futility and chaos by framing and composing every cause of existential hopelessness? Even nihilism can be shaped into story, made beautifully and truthfully subject to mind. Stories like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and The Turin Horse (count Lars von Trier’s Melancholia in this company) keep us alive and sane. Call them spiritual sustenance.
Sadly, long, challenging films like these will never garner larger auds after their festival showcases. That’s the tragedy of film as art, or art as film: the more it’s art, the less it will be seen. Both movies should have pride of place on any critic’s Ten Best List this year. But what would be the context for sharing such a list? Who would even recognize these titles?
The first framed image in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is seen through a dirty window pane: a blear of yellow light slowly resolves to show three comrades hunkered down for the night in a truckstop oasis, drinking, talking, laughing. Those are the stylistic elements that define the long pilgrimage that follows: darkness mitigated by camaraderie and revelations amid pools of golden light. This stylistic formalism recalls Howard Hawks, who brings his beleaguered communities into circles of light where friendship, music, and professional skill are often the only hedges against oblivion.