Greetings again from the darkness. Brace yourself for 3 hours and 19 minutes of heavy listening. Yes, the film was named Palme d’Or at the most recent Cannes, and the dialogue is exceptionally well written, but this isn’t one you can just kick back and enjoy. It requires some effort. The two big “action” sequences involve a 10 year old boy tossing a rock and later, his too proud father dropping something into a fireplace. The real action occurs between the ears of the viewer as we assimilate the moods and nuances and double-meanings that accompany the stream of conversations.
Award-winning director Nuri Bilge Ceylan co-wrote the script with his wife Ebru Ceylon, and that probably attributes to the sharpness and poignancy of the relationships between Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) and his wife Nihal (Melisa Sozen) and his sister Necla (Demet Akbag). Much of the film is devoted to one of two things: Aydin making himself feel important, or Nihal and/or Necla voicing their opinions on why he isn’t. While that may sound simple, the wordplay and grounded performances often leave us with the feeling that we are eavesdropping on very private conversations.
Filmed in the breathtakingly beautiful Cappadocia region of Anatolia, the geological spectrum contrasts mightily with the near claustrophobic interior scenes that dominate the run time. In fact, when one of the characters does venture outdoors, viewers will find themselves breathing easier and in relief of the stressful intimacy of other scenes.
Hotel Othello is cut directly into one of the more picturesque hillsides of the area, and owner Aydin spends his days locked away in his office, kicking off his latest article bashing societal and morality changes within the village. Aydin has a pretty easy life, as he has inherited the hotel and numerous income producing rental properties from his father. Aydin’s career as a stage actor also adds a bit to his local celebrity (and ego). He fancies himself an important man with an important voice, and never hesitates to broadcast his charitable offerings.
Aydin lives at the hotel with his much younger wife Nihal, and his recently divorced sister Necla. The dysfunction abounds as none of the three much respect the others, and manage to express this in the most incisive, passive-aggressive ways possible. There are two extended (each pushing 30 minutes) exchanges that are unlike anything you may have ever seen on screen. One has Necla letting Aydin know what she thinks of his articles, while the other has Nihal finally coming clean with her feelings of being held back, emotionally captive. Both scenes are captivating and powerful, yet voices are never raised and facial expressions are crucial. This is intimate film making at its best and most uncomfortable … psychological warfare would not be too extreme as a description.
Conflict is crucial for a dialogue-driven film. Some of the best include My Dinner with Andre, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and 12 Angry Men. These are the type of movies that cause us to study all the subtleties within a scene … not just what is said, but how it is said and how the message is conveyed. Pride, loneliness and despair run rampant through the characters here and the philosophical discussions force each to lay bare their soul.
For so little action, an undercurrent of wild emotions flows through every scene. In addition to the three leads, there is a character named Hamdi (an Islamic teacher/advisor, played by Serhat Mustafa Kilic) who plays the role of peace-keeper and mediator. His constant smile is but a mask he is forced to wear in his role, and I found his character the most painful of all to watch.
The title may be interpreted as either a “hibernation” or “sleep-walking through life’s final stages”, and both fit very well. The hotel provides a cave-like hiding place for Aydin, as he pretends to play his final role – that of an important man in the village. There are some truly masterful moments in the film, and it’s easy to see why it appeals to only a certain type of film goer. Inspired by the short stories of Chekhov (The Wife, Excellent People), as well as the writings of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Voltaire, means the viewer is investing emotionally in characters quite full of resentment and oh so dishonest with themselves. It’s an undertaking that is difficult, but does offer the opportunity to test one’s listening skills and ability to read body language. It also comes with wisdom such as … Donkeys lead camels (you’ll have to watch the movie!).
Opens in New York on Friday, December 19 and Los Angeles and other markets on Friday, January 23.