The weight of charity and power relations in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s superb Palme d’Or winner.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep went into Cannes as the frontrunner for the Palme d’Or, and the positive, yet slightly muted reaction that followed its win was perhaps due to such gargantuan expectations. It had all of the hallmarks of an ‘important’ film: big length, big themes, and big landscapes. Despite the obvious grandness on show, Ceylan’s film is minute in its interactions. Chekhov has been a common comparison (made by Ceylan himself and by critics in the aftermath of its screening), and there is certainly a short story feel to the piece, all symbolism and small events. It’s a chamber piece made to be seen on the big screen, with the stunning Cappadocia landscapes lending the film a peculiar otherworldly feel.
Mr. Aydin (a superb Haluk Bilginer) owns a hotel in the Turkish tourist hotspot. It’s winter, the tourists are few, and the snow is about to blow on in. Aydin lives with his divorced sister (Demet Akba?), with whom he verbally spars on regular occasions, and his much younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen),who makes up for her boredom by involving herself in charity projects in the nearby towns. Aydin rules over the household like a benevolent dictator, seemingly giving the others enough space to do as they choose, but more than happy to cut them down with a few well-placed words. On the way home, his car window is broken by the son of Aydin’s tenant Ismail. Ismail is struggling to keep with rental payments as he lost his job after being arrested, and his brother, the local imam, tries to plead on Ismail’s behalf.
The central crux of the film is the concept of charity. The concept of giving alms (zakat) is one of the five pillars of Islam, with the idea that it is an obligation that the well-off owe to the needy. Voluntary charity (sadaqah) is also an important obligation for Muslims. Ceylan presents charity in all of its complicated manifestations: Aydin is happy to throw money in certain situations (and arguably gives up a bunch of money without knowing what he giving money too), yet he is uncharitable when required to directly in front of his face. He is also uncharitable in the way he talks to his sister and wife. He captures, then releases a wild horse. Meanwhile, Nihal does charity to help not only the community, but also in part to help herself. Her attempts to do charity come from competing and it seems, mostly altruistic reasons, yet she is completely thrown when things don’t quite go as planned.
Ceylan is interested at looking at how charity operates in contemporary Turkey. Aydin was a presumably successful actor (he is currently attempting to write a potentially ludicrous book on the history of Turkish theatre), but he is also a large-scale landowner. He is able to give charity if he chooses. The poorer characters however, through cruel circumstances, have to rely on charity in order to survive. Ceylan suggests that there’s no guarantee of dignity if one is forced to accept charity nor should there necessarily be an obligation to be grateful. Charity without empathy is perhaps as deadening as deprivation.
This difference has also led to two versions of Turkey, the two kinds that clashed so forcefully with the Turkish protests in 2013-4. One the one hand, there is an urbanised, European direction-looking, nominally Muslim, liberal class—the ones who protested Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On the other hand, there is a poorer, more conservative class, the ones who vote for Erdogan and who have given him power to carry out autocratic actions. The charity that governs the various classes’ relationship is presented in contrasting ways. For Aydin, charity results in smugness, gives him an ability to rationalise the way things are by appeasing his conscience by giving up some of his money (yet he appears to have inherited his wealth). He is also clueless about actual ways to improve people’s lot, and his focus on other areas is perhaps Ceylan’s criticism of the artistic classes failure to help effect social change. For Ismail’s family, the reliance on charity breeds resentment and contempt, and the natural reaction is to divert one’s energy towards other aspects, such as religion or at its worst, begging. This appears most forcefully in the film in two bravura scenes: when the imam pleads on his brother’s behalf and Aydin gleefully and mock-ashamedly puts out his hand for a kiss, and in the final scene involving Nihal and Ismail.
Ceylan’s focus on conversations and dialogue (his characters for the most part speak past each other releasing suppressed—or hibernating—feelings) results in an almost too literal film. He could have left a few things unsaid, relied a bit on Chekhov’s mastery of understatement, which Ceylan had done so perfectly in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Accordingly, it could have been a bit more enigmatic, but this is a relatively small criticism in a film that looks gorgeous and is superbly acted. While Winter Sleep quite clearly speaks to a conflicted modern-day Turkey, it casts its net wider than its Turkish setting in terms of examining how money and power intertwine, and how intellectuals and artists have the potential to ignore others. It also magnifies its gaze: the relationship breakdown and the power relations touches on some of the great 1970s relationship films—Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and the later French Nouvelle Vague films of Maurice Pialat and Jean Eustache come to mind. Charity isn’t simply something involving money, and Ceylan’s magisterial film expertly weaves this through in examining both personal and societal relationships.