Lumberjacks and philosophers have been debating that whole "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" riddle for centuries. More recently, film buffs have put their own spin on George Berkeley's theory of immaterialism, namely, "If you present contemporary arthouse patrons with their generation's answer to Michelangelo Antonioni, will anyone bother showing up?" In the case of Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the answer, regrettably, is no.
Despite a slew of festival awards — including a Cannes Grand Jury prize for 2002's Distant — and an exalted critical reputation, Ceylan has yet to make a sizable dent in the North American marketplace. Three Monkeys won Ceylan the Best Director trophy at Cannes in May, yet it's screening only twice at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque.
Ceylan's most accessible work to date, Monkeys is a gloss on classic noir tropes: his first "genre" film. The story involves corrupt politician Servet (Ercan Kesal) who bribes longtime chauffeur Eyüp (Yavuz Bingol) into taking the rap for him after a hit-and-run accident. Soon afterward, the married Servet begins a not-so-clandestine affair with Eyüp's wife (Hatice Aslan). Things become even more complicated — morally and otherwise — when Eyüp is released from jail.
As oblique and deliberately paced as his previous movies — like Antonioni, Ceylan is a master of insinuation and alienation — Three Monkeys will never be confused with a James M. Cain potboiler. But Ceylan's drily methodical approach to narrative and his uncanny flair for making "pure cinema" definitely have their rewards. Whether that's enough to make him a household name outside the international fest circuit remains to be seen.
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