Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Winter Sleep is a sweeping, universally compelling epic that probes at the heart of its characters’ moral and ethical dilemmas. The dialogue stings like a scorpion and pierces like a just-sharpened spear, diving farther and farther into the psyche of these individuals and the way that saying one thing incorrectly can drastically change the tone of both a conversation and friendship. Encompassing 196 minutes, the film is an impressive achievement in absorbing the audience and keeping their attention; that’s a wholehearted testament to Anton Chekhov’s source material and the Ceylan’s sensitivity and perseverance. As director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan has created a world marked by the sad, cold emptiness of winter and a longing for a life not lived nor explored. That sense of hope and, unfortunately, hopelessness makes for wholly compelling, twisty scenes of dialogue. The film loses focus in those long-winded conversations but never strays from acting as a morality fable, and feels like one of the stronger foreign works released in the past year.
The main character is Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a former actor who runs a small hotel in central Anatolia with his young wife, Nihal (Melisa Sözen), and his sister, Necla (Demet Akbar). He has a fiery relationship with the former, one with its fair share of ups and downs, and the latter is a woman who simultaneously supports his writing endeavors but also wants him to strive for greater things. Her recent divorce has put her in the doldrums and her recovery period leads to some nagging conversations between the siblings. As the snow begins to cover the landscapes and winter takes on its full emotional and physical force, the family begins to disintegrate in front of Aydin’s eyes, mostly due to his selfish absorptions and empty-minded actions; he doesn’t seem to care about people so much as what good they are to him. The catalyst of the story is simple: a young boy throws a stone through Aydin and his friend’s car window, leading them to chase down the boy and take him back to his drunkard of a father. This leads to a distraught relationship between all of them, followed by Aydin’s decisions to have the family take care of the car lead to his relationships further growing past their ability to be mended.
Winter Sleep is reminiscent of many cinematic styles, both modern and nostalgic: the influence of Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi is uncanny in Ceylan’s approach to human life and the banality of conflict that can become compelling in cinema, while the visual flair (or lack thereof, depending on who you talk to) of French New Wave approaches lead to a calculated visual style. Yet past that influence, the star of the film is not the central actor, Bilginer, who is outstanding, but the film’s script. It navigates lengthy, ten-plus minute conversations surrounding ethics, ambition, sympathy, and virtually any other human emotion or conflict that can arise in everyday life. It’s so engrossing that each individual scene shines. Their cohesion leaves a bit to be desired, feeling much more like vignettes with a lot of power that do not mesh into a single message. But that’s probably intentional, considering the morality fable underlying the central narrative. Even if Winter Sleep leaves the viewer a little bit cold and detached, it mirrors its central character and has the heart grow fonder of these people over such a long duration. It’s a rewarding film.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)