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May 17, 2021

Surprising resemblances

Nuri Bilge Ceylan is one of the most spoiled directors of the Cannes Film Festival. In less than a decade, he won an Award for Best Director, two Grand Prix and, at the latest edition, the highly desired Palme d’Or. The last trophy was unavoidably controversial: it is a long and slow film, its action located in a province „where nothing happens”, based mostly on endless dialogue that seems to come mostly from the boredom of the people stuck in front of their fireplaces during the long winter. If, aesthetically speaking, his achievement was below his preceding film, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”, where the plasticity, rhythm and mystery were better potentiated, this time, the greatness of the film relies in the moralistic depth of the dialogues and the social analysis in subtext. A small provincial entrepreneur, the owner of a rustic hotel (carved in the picturesque rocks of Cappadocia, an influential editorialist of the regional paper “Voice of the Steppe”, former actor and aspiring writer, local Maecenas for social causes, an elderly man with a young wife – the protagonist seems symmetrical to Eugene Ionesco’s hero in the play “Exit the King”, an adrift centre of a small provincial universe. If he disappears, how do others survive? His employee at the hotel seems more like a loyal squire, willing to do anything in order to defend his master; his sister, bored and hurt after a divorce, harshly criticises his useless vanities but is incapable of any action on her own; his young wife desires to break out of his protective shadow, yet her idealism is inefficient; his bad debtor boarders keep renting his house due to his ambiguities as an insufficiently consequent owner; the social projects in the region depend on his benevolence. The stake of the film “Winter Sleep” lies precisely in questioning the moral bases of our actions, which cannot be innocent but sometimes hide, under the appearance of good intentions, terribly egotistical and mean motivations. Actually, it is precisely this moral realism that’s remarkable, as it describes the contextual complexity of our moral choices, always in a dramatic conflict between the self-image of conscience and the contradictory perspectives of others. Starting from this, the film is a fresco. It is a fresco of contemporary Turkey, but of similar societies as well, such as the Romanian one. It is surprising, first of all, that in a country led by a militant Islamic party; references to religion are almost absent. It is true, certainly, that one of the characters is a local imam, but his position resembles that of a humble servant, fully dependant on the whims of the master or of the local aristocrat. In the game, it does not seem criticism of the political conservationism, but more like a discovery, under the shell of capitalism dynamics, of the persistency of quasi-feudal dependence relations that crush personalities.

His young wife, although loved, respected, encouraged and granted real personal space, still feels in a cage, unable to leave and make ends meet on her own, without the support and the skills of her husband. His impoverished boarders are either begging or taking revenge and are impossible to help except for whims of benevolence. A school in the village depends on the decision of a wealthy man, whose conscience glides depending on the tribulations of his intimate universe. A professor aged over 40 cannot get married because he still supports his relatives. The fates of many people depend on the fortune of one man. And on his gliding conscience. The director was inspired by Chekhov, the writer who chose province as a concentrated frame of human condition and the one who had the intuition of the reactionary potential of closed social relations, devoid of perspectives. “Winter Sleep” could have been made in a village in the Baragan steppe and the imam could have been replaced with a humble rural priest. There is, actually, a genuine tradition of literature depicting the stale province atmosphere and of social immobility in Romania. Perhaps, the resemblance is based not only on common history, as the Romanian provinces were, throughout many centuries, in the sphere of Ottoman influence, but also on the parallel experience of secularization. Turkey was founded as a modern state under the authority of Ataturk, who reduced the influence of religion in public life. Romania, inoculated with Western influences by new Liberal elites, despite of its Byzantine tradition, suffered afterwards the forced secularization imposed by the Communist regime. It is not accidental that, in most Romanian contemporary films, the presence of religion is just as discrete as in the works of the Turkish director. It is also interesting that the hotel in the film is carved in rock, just like the cells of Christian hermits were, in the same Cappadocia, a millennium and a half ago. And the most special Romanian monasteries have become tourist attractions, which is actually proof of an ambiguous process of perpetuating spiritual traditions.



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