For moviegoers craving engagement instead of escape, the stunningly acted Turkish domestic drama Three Monkeys is the perfect antidote to the smash-bang-kaboom blockbusters. A quietly cascading tale of the corruption, betrayal and manipulation corkscrewing from a car accident, the film earned Nuri Bilge Ceylan the best director award at Cannes 2008.
One night on a dark back road, a man alone at the wheel dozes off and runs someone over. He's about to drive off, leaving the body and escaping the consequences, when another motorist sees his license plate but not his face. So Servet (Ercan Kesel), a man of means running for a seat in an imminent election, devises a solution: His driver, Eyup, will take the rap and serve a short prison term, in exchange for his usual salary (to be paid to his family) and a hefty payoff when he's released.
Servet's departure from the scene of the accident, it should be noted, was accompanied by a violent thunderclap. Not loud enough to dent the din in The Taking of Pelham 123 or Transformers, mind you, but it's a significant event in Three Monkeys. Perhaps the crackling boom symbolizes the death of Servet's conscience, or God's presence as an observer to his crime of opportunism. What I can report is that we hear that thunder again much later in the film, and it is just as shattering and doom-laden.
Eyup (Yavuz Bingol) ends up getting a year in jail, leaving his wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan) and aimless teenage son Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Sungar) to live in mostly fraught silence without the patriarch to set the rules and maintain the status quo. We are given to know, though, through the gradual accretion of mysterious details, that this family was haunted and coming apart long before the event that led to Eyup's departure. When he eventually returns home, all three must confront how -- or whether -- to pick up the pieces.
Ceylan achieved one gorgeous composition after another in his previous films, Distant (2002) and Climates (2006), but here he desaturates his colors, leaching the romance from Turkey and making the sunbaked terrain look more like Eastern Europe than the Mediterranean. His aim isn't to make an ugly picture by any means, but to reduce any distractions that might draw our eye away from the characters. The landscape that Ceylan is interested in here is the human face, with its waves of unspoken emotion and passion and desperation.
There are stretches of pained silence in Three Monkeys, and we are often left to infer or imagine what old wounds have been reopened. (Ismail returns home beaten and bleeding one day; we're never told the cause of his injuries, or why Hacer looks at him with so little empathy.) This movie is squarely in the tradition of European art films of the '70s such as Alain Tanner's La Salamandre or The Middle of the World which required the viewer to connect the dots, a challenge made more challenging by the intentional omission of some of the dots.
Three Monkeys is no masterpiece but it is a harrowing and rewarding film, and an increasingly rare treat for moviegoers weary of being treated by filmmakers as imbeciles or one of Pavlov's dogs. It's the kind of film that pushes to the fore my usual hobbyhorses: Is there still a place for a cinema of faces and silences, of introspection and ambiguity? In the post-MTV world, can we focus on a static shot lasting longer than five seconds? Can a filmmaker depict mysterious, unexplained behavior without being accused of preciousness? Are filmgoers still capable of seeing a society's moral disintegration in the travails of an ordinary pockmarked family?
You'll walk out of Three Monkeys with your own questions. Here's another: What's worse -- the deals we make with the devil, or the deals we make with ourselves? And are they not often the same thing?
Three Monkeys opens Friday, June 26, 2009 on SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.