Art should be both local and universal: though long accepted as a criterion for greatness, this axiom has become ambiguous. As praise, it may mask irrelevance and mediocrity, and, in the realm of globalized cinema and the international festival circuit, merely function as routine marketing copy. In this light, Three Monkeys seemingly inverts the general trend in the reception of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s work. Hitherto an obscure figure to the mainstream Turkish audience, he has recently gained recognition in his homeland as a Turkish cinema pioneer. But his latest film has provoked mixed reactions internationally, from admiration for his vision to dismissal for artsy stylistic pretensions supposedly cultivated with an eye to Cannes.
The skeptics are not wholly unjustified: there’s a general problem of verisimilitude in Three Monkeys, in particular regarding the character of Hacer. This mother living in the slums on the outskirts of Istanbul is played by Hatice Aslan, an actress whose refined gestures and poise lend her lower-class character the air of an urbane, affluent member of the downtown set. The film’s milieu couldn’t be further from that: Hacer toils in a restaurant kitchen to supplement her family’s income; her son, Ismail (Rifat Sungar), having failed his university entrance exams, is lethargic and aimless; and her husband, Eyüp (Yavuz Bingöl), is chauffeur and aide to Servet (Ercan Kesal), a plump-faced local politician with a wonderfully repellent lopsided smirk, and for whom the family is nothing if not expendable. When Servet kills someone in a hit-and-run accident right before an upcoming election, he asks Eyüp to confess to the crime in return for considerable financial compensation. Eyüp, out of both altruism and submissiveness, accepts the offer and goes to prison. Meanwhile Servet begins an affair with Hacer. Upon Eyüp’s release, Servet discards her, though she is by now overcome with passionate desire for the politician.
To be sure, Ceylan’s depiction of this particular socioeconomic milieu is less than rigorous—particularly in comparison to the films of Zeki Demirkubuz, the filmmaker’s sometime comrade and peer in the New Turkish Cinema. But in a curious way, this is as much the film’s strength as its weakness. To be sure, Ceylan’s stylistic indulgences—the synthetic sound design and digitally manipulated images—may seem gratuitous and sophomoric, calling attention to the virtuosity of the filmmaking at the expense of the characters and the world they inhabit.
But the Istanbul and slums of the film are not intended to be the slums and Istanbul of real life. They are, at best, intimations—or specters, much like the film’s characters; for while they may lack an authentic, rich spectrum of socioeconomic or psychological nuances, they nevertheless bear recognizable traces resonant with a certain social or personal condition. That’s why Aslan seems so out of place: playing what is admittedly not the most feminist-friendly of characters, she’s nothing more than a stand-in for Ceylan’s (masculine) conception of tumultuous (female) desire. In this sense, the film’s characters are, to varying degrees, “possessed”; not only by overwhelming feelings of guilt, obligation, and desire but by their creator himself, whose extreme color and harsh sound interventions imbue them with an unsettling, almost demonic aspect.
This is a new advance for Ceylan, whose semiautobiographical earlier films, while confessional and intimate, evoked a Chekhovian sense of social pathos through his characters’ entrapment in the tedium and melancholy of the world around them. Three Monkeys tackles a more amorphous—and universal—sense of desire and culpability at the expense of the postcard specificity of Ceylan’s previous work, while at the same time tapping into something larger—something not unlike a national ethos. The overcast skies and ominous clouds evoke not so much some picturesque, romantic transcendence as the polluted air of wrongdoing that looms over a people who have had to go about their daily lives through decades of political upheaval, moral corruption, and economic stagnation, crushed beneath a burden of guilt, humiliation and worn out pride. Three Monkeys is a peculiarly nationalistic eulogy, because what lies at the heart of this nationalism isn’t pride in national identity, but rather a quintessentially humanistic stance. It’s a recognition of the people’s ambivalence and failings, and a tribute to their endurance in the face of the human condition.