Imagine The Odd Couple if it had been filmed by the late, great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. The central situation would retain its comic overtones but the general atmosphere would be weighty as if soaked in existential malaise. Distant is something like that (intentionally — the movie makes two brief but explicit nods to Tarkovsky). It’s a sympathetic tale about two people who can’t connect to each other — or anyone else for that matter — beautifully filmed in a pensive navel-gazing style that will either drive you mad with boredom or suck you into its meditative groove.
Turkish writer/director Nuri Bilge Ceylan tells the tale of Mahmut, a successful photographer who lives in Istanbul. He’s a sophisticated city dweller with a well-earned cynical streak. Although he’s good at his job he’s tired of it. Mahmut is a precise man with precise habits but his life still feels aimless, a condition exacerbated by the fact that he’s still in love with his ex-wife who’s about to leave for Canada with her new man.
Yusef is a country cousin who comes to stay with Mahmut for a while. The cousin is from a small town dependent on a local factory which has shut down; a simple type, he’s come to the big city to try to find work aboard a ship, to see the world and make his fortune. He’s as naive and unrefined as Mahmut is complex and neurotic. For a while, Mahmut is tolerant, even kindly toward his cousin. It’s only after he realizes that Yusef’s job hunting is going nowhere that things begin to sour between them.
Though they seem like opposites, Mahmut and Yusef share an alienation from the people around them; Mahmet from within the cosmopolitan society, Yusef from without. Mahmut sits in his apartment and stares listlessly at his TV; Yusef wanders around the city following women he’s too shy to approach. Both are extremely lonely and neither can find in the other any solace or company.
Ceylan has taken this simple story and given it a certain metaphysical grandeur. The long pauses where “nothing” seems to be happening, the wordless sequences of figures wandering are familiar “post-Antonioni,” “post-Tarkovsky” tropes, but Ceylan uses them to effectively deepen the emotional field of his story, to connect it to the abiding mysteries of existence. It’s an approach that may seem a little demanding on the viewer, but if you see it in the right reflective mood, it’s a visually sumptuous and quietly moving film.
In Turkish with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday and Saturday, Aug. 20-21, at 7 and 9:30 p.m., and on Sunday, Aug. 22, at 4 and 7 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.