By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Climates,” Zeitgeist Films, 2007]
I love ultra-minimalist international art films, the kind heralded at global film festivals and most famously exemplified by Hou Hsiao-hsien, Abbas Kiarostami, Tsai Ming-liang, Carlos Reygadas, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Šarūnas Bartas, Bruno Dumont, Nuri Bilge Ceylan you know the drill, the long static shots, the non-communicative acting, the oblique narratives, the attention to passing time and natural phenomena and what exactly we don’t know about what’s going on. But I sometimes grow suspicious; it seems so easy, doesn’t it? Do we respect these movies merely for what they aren’t? Personally, I’d make a pulpitarian’s full-throated case for the filmmakers listed above, but when watching films by pretenders to this bandwagon (for instance, Vimukthi Jayasundara’s “The Forsaken Land,” from Sri Lanka, and Portugese ennui-specialist Pedro Costa’s “Colossal Youth”), I grow to sympathize with the ticket-buying hoi polloi who generally demand a little clarity and propulsion along with their cinematographic visual blitz.
On the other hand, of course, we all hope in our hearts that if we plopped our middlebrow parents or neighbors or hockey-fan pals down in front of the right art film (someone, please, muster a better meta-genre title than this one), they’d see the truthfulness and wisdom and hidden beauty as we do. Ceylan’s newest film, “Climates,” is a good choice for the experiment it couldn’t be clearer in its essaying the ordinary collapse of a long-term relationship, and yet the film communicates its emotional weather to us in ways that shock us with its secrets. A couple an older but worldly architecture professor and his younger designer mate, played by Ceylan and his real wife, Ebru Ceylan are vacationing in Greece, photographing the ruins. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but then we discover it’s already happening: the camera unceremoniously lingers, and lingers, on a closeup of the woman’s face as she watches her man, and we see her forget her life, and then remember it, and then mourn it, crying.
From there, sorrow comes to town. The relationship dissolves the way they do in reality, and in Raymond Carver stories with a derisive chuckle, with an unanswered question, with a secret nobody knows who knows. Because the characters behave like real people, we participate emotionally in their scenes as if we were present, exploring on our own what may’ve happened in the past and what’s going on behind their eyes now. Ceylan’s camera favors observant angles, but it’s mostly a character study of the man, a charming, sophisticated academic lost in his own life. Shot, rapturously, on digital video, “Climates” limns palpable human territory, but it’s a great film because of Ceylan’s subtle and restrained eloquence eloquence? Can you name a recent American film that could be lauded for its visual eloquence? Rather than a one-man Turkish new wave, Ceylan seems to be the Turkish representative in a global trend, inspired by Antonioni and guided by Kiarostami and Hou, and meant not just for local audiences but for the Earthly citizens of Cannes-istan. It’s a demographic that could grow sit your “Knocked-Up”-focused friends down to Ceylan’s portrait of discontent, and see if they don’t catch their breaths.
Or show them the newest, or rather, only Irish cow farm horror movie, Billy O’Brien’s minimalist-in-its-own-way film “Isolation,” which stands as some kind of crafty demonstration that with effective filmmaking and a headful of uncomfortable ideas, a delirious horror experience can be built from any locale, and with any amount of money. (Actually, the film cost around $5 million, but it looks like it could’ve been made for a fraction of that.) Suffice it to say that the cows on star John Lynch’s remote County Wicklow farm have been test-subjected to a little genetic engineering, which only appears to be a potential problem when a lovely bovine vet (Ruth Negga) routinely slides her entire arm into a pregnant cow’s uterus and gets bitten for her troubles. It’s a slow burn to major yuck from there, with low-budget (and non-digital) effects having to do little of the genre work because O’Brien’s moviemaking by itself so expertly creates a sense of natural menace. The DVD’s extras include O’Brien’s fabulous award-winning short, “The Tale of the Rat that Wrote” (1999), which also eschews CGIs for puppetry and a winning way with antiquated-storybook raw materials.
“Climates” (Zeitgeist) and “Isolation” (First Look) are now available on DVD.