Winter Sleep

Winter Sleep ★★★★½

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep is not an easy to film to watch but it is a necessary one. It is relentless in its exploration of class tensions and power relations that permeate the global social climate today. Not that it's particularly topical, except for a few laptops this film could’ve taken place a hundred or more years ago with little difference. Unlike his last film, the masterful Once Upon A Time in Anatolia which relied heavily on atmosphere and landscape, Winter Sleep is driven by a series of dialogues on the responsibility of the wealthy (Noblesse Oblige) and the humiliation of the needy. Once again Ceylan revisits Turkey’s Anatolia with its hauntingly beautiful hills and homes that spring out of caves; these seemingly organic rather than man-made structures recall an earlier time when man and nature were still one. And yet Ceylan’s approach this time is less meditative and more critical of the people who live there.

The film is told through the perspective of Aydin, a wealthy landlord who antagonizes everyone in his life and struggles to stand by his belief that he is not a bad man. The film starts with him in a car while a child stares at him intensely, soon after the child throws a stone that breaks the car’s window. The camera lingers on his shattered image. The question on his mind and ours: what has he done to provoke such violence? The rest of the film is an answer to this question. He’s an educated man, not prone to confrontation and yet he’s confronted in almost every scene. Every conversation is a struggle for dominance. In one horrifying yet beautiful scene some men capture a wild horse for him; it’s a majestic creature and we can understand why he wants it yet to posses it he almost drowns it. This scene perfectly captures his relations with his wife, his sister and everyone else is in his life; he possesses others, loved ones and servants and by keeping them near he suffocates them. This is not a man who was born into nobility, but perhaps because he has risen into wealth he harbors an innate loathing for those who could not rise on their own; he detests the whining and victimization of the poor. He spends his day writing opinion pieces where he proselytizes on the merits of natural aesthetics and cleanliness; he longs for the old days when the poor subscribed to a dignified minimalism. One of his wealthy friends advises him that poverty, like natural disasters, is the will of God and that alleviating poverty, though a noble pursuit, is not the obligation of the wealthy.

Our conflicted protagonist is completely aware of his faults and arrogance, underneath his boasts of accomplishments is a wounded pride. He’s constantly on the defensive, trying to justify his actions to himself more than anyone else. He asks his wife “What exactly is it I am guilty of?” and she’s quick to reply “You are an unbearable man. You suffocate others. You humiliate, hurt and denigrate everyone you meet.” His wife, Nihal, is the only character in this movie that seems genuinely concerned for the plight of the underclass. She’s much younger than him, less cynical and it is through her that we suspect there must be some good in him; yet it soon becomes clear whatever she once saw in him is no longer there. So as not to depend on him she raises money for her cause without telling him, and yet his incessant need to promote dependence (or to buy affection) make him meddle into her affairs to detrimental results. In the film's most potent scene, the director allows us a brief respite from our unbearable protagonist, following his wife instead as she goes into to the home of one of his tenants. It's a heartbreaking scene about the perils of poverty and charity that reminded me of the works of Dostoyevsky. Like the Russian author, Ceylan is interested in morality and guilt, the debts we incur by accepting favors.

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