According to internet sources, Nuri Bilge and Ebru were inspired to do the film by some of the stories of that great 19th century Russian dramatist and short story writer called Anton Chekhov, one of my favourite authors and a true master of those genres. But I can't figure out which of the stories the Ceylans relied on. Perhaps it might not be a bad idea at all if I were to give myself an excellent pretext to re-read some of Chekhov's stories, which are always such a joy to read. I still remember one of the things Chekhov said about the use of words and stage props: each one of them must serve a purpose and if an author can't think of any good reason why it should be there, it should be cut out! Hence the remarkable economy of his short stories and his drama. Even if one can't find which of the stories the Ceylans picked on, it is obvious that they've adopted a most Chekhovian style in their film: everything of significance is skilfully revealed by what the characters say to one another and by their action in the apparently most trivial and banal details of everyday living, where nothing much happens.
The film intercuts judiciously between scenes of medium to long but often razor sharp dialogue between the various characters and spectacular cinematographic widescreen captures of the beautiful outdoor of Cappadocia in winter, the interior of the hotel rooms and the sitting room of another small cave house where most of the action takes place and the faces of the characters. The screen images are always shot with painterly sense of composition and an almost "magical" use of light. The eloquent images and dialogues are used most economically to highlight the infinite capacity of human beings to hurt one another and to tear each other apart, some with words, some with violence, some with silences or lack of action when one would expect them to follow in the relevant contexts, some even with excessive "acts of generosity". They cut at what is most hurtful, at a human being's desperate need for a sense of public and private "honor" in the various fragile and vulnerable forms of public reputation, social status and the scrupulously cultivated masks of "self-respect" or "self-image" as an indivisible part of his/her incessant struggle to find an acceptable "meaning of life".
When the film begins, we find Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a retired stage actor after some 25 years, who proudly said that he had never once acted in a "soap" and now a wealthy land owner and the proprietor of the best cave hotel in Capadoccia, being driven by Hidayet( Ayberk Pekcan ) his personal assistant/driver to the home of one of his non-paying tenants. The window of his jeep was cracked by a rock hurled by what we later learn was son of one of his tenants. He gave chase and got the boy, who had fallen into a pond and drove him back to his home and was received by Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç ) the village hodja (Islamic priest/teacher) who apologized profusely for not being able to pay the rent and promised to pay the relevant compensation. Aydin asked the boy why he did what he did but the boy kept his mouth absolutely shut. Aydin did not insist and left.
The scene then switches to Aydin's cosy and tastefully decorated study full of works of art, reading what he thought was a fan mail. We then learn from his pointed conversation with Necla (Demet Akbag), Aydin's recently divorced sister during which they discussed why Muslim religious teacher nowadays no longer enjoy the kind of respect which ought to be enjoyed by them and from that the conversation wanders quite naturally to why Aydin who was merely writing a column for a small local newspaper should not write for a national newspaper in Instanbul and how he plan to complete a book on Turkish drama. The sharp tongued Necla seems to be hinting at Aydin's lack of courage to expose himself to a more critical world instead of being cocooned within the warmth of the sun within that little rural "kingdom" he carefully built with what natural gifts he had as a minor writer and wherein he feels he reigns supreme. He didn't reply directly.
Then the camera brought us to Aydin talking with Hidayet about the cost of replacing the cracked jeep window and his second visit to Hamdi's house but was met at the court yard this time by a rather hostile Ismail (Nejat Isler), his tenant, a man who had been in prison for theft and who has since been unable to find any job in the area and who now spends his time drinking and whose family is now supported by the meagre salary of his sycophantic brother Hamdi. When Ismail learns of the amount Aydin tells him he got to pay he first complains that it can't be that much and when told that that's the price Hidayet says from his inquiries, got into fury and smashes his hand against the window at the front of his cave house, with blood streaming down his fingers and then tells Aydin that now that his own window is also broken, they're even! Then Hamdi returns and invites Aydin in, offers him tea and explains his family's financial plight and promises to pay the rent as well as damages for replacing his jeep window and asks his nephew to apologize to Aydin, something the boy resolutely refuses to do. Later Hamdi brings the boy to Aydin's hotel to apologize and does his best to ask him to kiss Aydin's hand as a sign of the latter's true contriteness for what he did. Aydin at first says that it's not necessary but eventually proffers his hand for the purpose, behaving as if he were really a "lord", with his face averted, waiting to be kissed, without even looking at the boy. At the last minute the boy refuses to do so, leaving Aydin's uplifted hand hanging in mid air for some seconds. Aydin however does not show any outward sign of anger or embarrassment, the very picture of stoical calmness or indifference.
We learn that in Aydin is now married to a young wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), who came from a poor village but who now sleeps separately from Aydin and busies herself with raising funds to help the dilapidated local school which we learn from the her conversation with Aydin has many of its windows broken and lack even the most basic furniture. He is assisted in running the hotel by sister Necla, who helps in serving the guest with tea, breakfast etc. It is obvious from the conversations with Necla that Aydin considers himself quite an "intellectual" who towers above the ordinary folks and that his column for the small local newspaper in which he can pontificates at will over all sorts of cultural matters, is with a bit of justification, quite "popular". One day he receives a fan mail asking him to give her school in a remote village some donation. He invites his farmer friend and fellow landlord in the region and invites first his sister and then his wife over to his study, ostensibly for the purpose of asking for their opinion on how he should reply to that letter and takes the opportunity to read out to them the entire letter which is full of praise for his column. Nihal comments wryly that if he wants to help any school, he should help the local school in whose fund raising she takes the leading role, something that, as she tells Aydin in a later quarrel, she finds is the only thing that gives any meaning to her estranged life with Aydin. The others were equivocal as to what he should so. In the end, Aydin never wrote that letter of reply but decides to donate a huge sum of money for the local school after his quarrel with Nihal in which he criticizes her on how incompetent she is in handling the money: not having any lists of donors with the accounts clearly setting out who donated how much and when and how the money has been spent etc and not thinking ahead of how she might be questioned later by the donors. Nihal who appears genuinely unable to understand such matters says in anger that if Aydin likes, he can do that himself. Aydin picks up the papers thrown on the ground without a word of anger with his trademark "philosophic" calm and starts doing it but then decides it is too troublesome and gives up.
A little later, when Aydin tells Nihal that he would be going to Instanbul for the rest of the winter and return in spring to deal with the publication of his book on Turkish drama, Nihal takes the envelope containing the untouched donation money to Hamdi's and offers him the entire sum but Hamdi tells her in the middle of counting it that it is too much. However when the drunken Ismail returns home, much to the surprise of Nihal, he throws the wad of bank notes one by one into the fire, something which brings tears to her eyes. In the final scene, when Aydin decides out of a momentary whim, whilst waiting in a freezing cabin for the delayed train to Instanbul in the midst of the winter snow, not to go to Instanbul at the last minute, reconciles with Nihal and tells her that from now on she can do whatever it is she wants, presumably realizing finally that it is his relationship with her which is far more important than how intelligently she acts and all his high sounding principles of acting within the bounds of moderation, balance, reason, fairness and honesty etc. How long will the volte face last before Aydin is overtaken by another whim and the irrepressible sense of "superiority" he feels about the people around him in his little Cappadocian kingdom? It's anybody's guess!
It's a film which bears re-seeing because some of its pointed dialogues which gives us much food for thought about reality of man's nature. If not for anything else, they make us think at least of how people's words and action can so often be prompted by a distorted sense of pride and how what they say and what they do may just be different kinds of "masks" intended in reality to impress others or to persuade ourselves, a bit like those masks on the walls of Aydin's study and how the "strength" we show the world may serve merely to hide how beneath that carefully cultivated image of our "self", how weak, how fragile, how empty, we truly feel we are.The studied art direction by Gamze Kus, the carefully crafted visual effects by Jean-Michel Boublil, the stunning cinematography by Gökhan Tiryaki are all uniformly excellent. Everything on the silver screen is portrayed with the quiet, balanced and perhaps even a bit frigid sound of the piano theme song in the background. The acting of Haluk Bilginer in particular is superb as that supercilious Aydin, full of a barely suppressed sense of self-importance beneath this outward mask of fairness, calmness and civility. I like in particular the way Nuri Bilge Ceylan's way of allowing the images and the action of the characters to comment on their articulated words, creating in the process a kind of double dialectic whereby one character's point of view is set against that of another and the action or lack of action of the characters becomes the embodiment of the director's ironic critique of the purported "truth" asserted by the characters on the screen. Such tension helps enormously to unsettle the "stability' of their values and their implied attitudes and forces them and through them us, to face the complexity and ambiguities of human "reality". I like also the image of Aydin finally releasing from his stable the small fiery indigenous Turkish steed captured from the wilderness, which he bought at huge expense a while ago but which he never once rode. I like especially the final image of Aydin with his rifle poised for firing, hesitating for a few seconds before taking aim and shooting the hare, huddled amidst some wild bushes in the winter snow, its ears raised for any sound of danger and bringing it home as his prize to be shared by one and all. An ambiguous image which can be so pregnant with meaning at multiple levels: the violence of his former rationality? The death throes of his former outward appearance of "meekness" in that snowy wilderness in the winter of his life? His final resolution for the destruction of the his alter ego? I am not in the least bit surprised that the film won the Palme d'or and the FIPRESCI International Federation of Film Critics ( short for Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique or International Federation of Film Journalists and Critics) Prize at the last Cannes Films Festival as the best film.