Thursday, January 15, 2009
James from Out 1 here. With the 9-film shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film announced, let us all open our ears to the Annual Critics Who Cry “Snub!” While you can typically count me in that group, there are only a couple films that people are really upset about being snubbed (Gomorrah, Captain Abu Raed...but really, did you really expect Jordan to get a nomination the first year it submits?) unlike last years full-blown snub debacle (4 Months, Edge of Heaven, I Just Didn’t Do It, The Orphanage, Persepolis, Silent Light, Taxidermia, XXY...none of which even made the shortlist!) in favor of the weakest set of foreign film nominees in a decade.
Maybe the new rules are doing some good. The inclusion of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest feature Three Monkeys (Üç Maymun) proves, if nothing else, that the committee is getting a little more daring in their choices and, at long last, not afraid to reject generic, period (war) dramas. Turkey has never been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and, while Ceylan’s strongest feature Distant (Uzak) was submitted for Oscar consideration in 2003 and failed to clinch the nomination, Three Monkeys is a touch more accessible for Oscar voters and may provide Turkey and Ceylan the nomination they deserve.
In Three Monkeys, Ceylan’s assured direction maintains the somber, quiet, and brooding tone illustrated so effectively in Distant and Climates; however, Three Monkeys features a more straight forward narrative, which makes it a great introduction to Ceylan’s work even though its narrative attributes end up being its major weakness. After Servet, a wealthy politician, accidentally kills a pedestrian, he calls his lower class driver Eyüp to take the fall in exchange for a large sum of money for him and his family when he gets out. So begins his family’s attempts to cover up the truth of their situation, which leads to the disconnection and isolation that comes with the acceptance of, and refusal to recognize, their deception.
Ceylan’s direction is as sure handed as ever, which makes Three Monkeys a technical marvel. Ceylan has an acute sense for tone and mood, similar to Hungarian master Bela Tarr, that establishes the fascinating contradiction of claustrophobic isolation. But, just as Tarr’s The Man From London wanders off course with its dedication to narrative, Three Monkeys' lugubrious feel fails to completely mesh with its highly emotional melodramatic narrative. The material packs a punch of its own, albeit a familiar one, but Ceylan’s perfectly muted pitch, so focused on repression and interiority, highlights how emotionally vacant the bigger dramatic moments are in comparison to the powerful subtelties that enlivened the best parts of Three Monkeys and Ceylan's previous films.
Three Monkeys features sequences as strong as anything Ceylan has done, but falls short of the beauty and power seen in Distant and Climates. At the same time, it is the kind of gutsy “art house” foreign film that always deserves wider recognition and is consistently snubbed by Oscar voters. I’m still skeptical it will crack the final five (it’s less commercial than Oscar ever goes for and Ceylan is a young director who could win down the road) but, despite its faults, I’ll be rooting for Three Monkeys all the way.