Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.
With Uzak (Distant), Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has given me something of a poser. I’ve been sitting here looking at this almost-blank document for 20 minutes trying to think of something to say about this film and honestly, not much is coming. I’m not sure that this is a fault in the film. Ceylan’s film is simultaneously a brilliant piece of cinema and dreadfully dull—but it’s dull by intent.
Mahmut (Muzaffer Ozdemir) is a commercial photographer living in Istanbul. There was a time when he was greatly interested in art and the more artistic side of his profession, but time and necessity have turned him into a sort of wage slave. Mahmut seems to be passively dead from the neck up. Things change, or at least have the potential to change, when his cousin Yusuf (Emin Toprak) arrives from the country. Yusuf has lost his job in a factory when the factory closed. He’s come to Istanbul with the dream of working on a ship, hoping that not only will he see the world, but also make money.
Much of the film is about the non-relationship of these two men. They are both completely disconnected from everything else around them and from each other. For Mahmut, it is a way of adapting to the impersonal life of a large city. He is close to no one—divorced and still in some minor contact with his ex-wife, but otherwise living in his own world. For him, this appears to be a safety precaution. No one will remind him of his artistic dreams or wonder why he has effectively sold out his talent and is reduced to taking pictures of ceramic tiles. Yusuf is simply a rube out of his element. He knows no one but his cousin and has no idea of how the city works or functions, even to the point of not knowing how or where to find the work he desires.
And that, more or less, is the movie. The two men find themselves in frequent conflict not over ideas or beliefs or hopes, but the basics of living in the same small space. Mahmut is meticulous while Yusuf is far more casual about his personal hygiene and the care of their suddenly shared apartment. Both mean appear to have some desire to connect with the other, but neither is willing to give any ground on what he does, how he acts, or how he feels to make this happen. And so they live together, but completely separate.
This makes for a potentially fascinating character study, but it doesn’t really make for a very exciting film. In fact, Uzak is potentially deadly boring. Ceylan is a fan of long takes and static camera shots, and a great deal of what we assume is happening on screen is entirely internal. There are long stretches with no dialogue, leaving us to interpret the characters thoughts and moods strictly from their actions.
It is nonetheless a beautiful film, one that requires attention despite being so difficult at times to pay attention to. And that’s what’s at issue here. It’s completely a slice out of the lives of these two men who have a gulf between them that each refuses to bridge. Why, despite their obvious isolation and loneliness? Because that would take effort, just like Yusuf’s half-hearted job searches and Mahmut’s inability to pursue the actual art of photography. Mahmut instead wastes himself in front of the television, watching Tarkovsky films with Yusuf is around and switching to porn tapes when his cousin leaves the room. These are men who are more or less spiritually dead inside, and too complacent to make any effort to change anything.
As such, Uzak has the potential to be fascinating for the film viewer willing to put him- or herself in the position of the minute, intense study of two men rendered almost as static as most of Ceylan’s shots by complete mental, emotional, and spiritual isolation from the rest of the world. For anyone else, though, Uzak is an experiment in watching paint dry. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times I drifted off and had to rewind a bit to the last thing I remembered. I’d also be lying if I didn’t say that there is a great depth and beauty and deep sadness evident here as well.
Uzak is worth watching, but only from that proper mindset. It has the potential to turn off viewers with its sloth-like pace, but also has the power to entrance them for the same reason. Don’t say you haven’t been warned, and don’t say that you haven’t been told to expect something truly remarkable lurking beneath that motionless surface.
Why to watch Uzak: A cinematic view of depression and loneliness.
Why not to watch: Expect to become very, very sleepy.