A lyrically subdued and humane masterpiece, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2002 Uzak – with its story appropriately set in a busy metropolis separated by two continents – takes its time to build up dramatic tension in a haunting meditation on selfishness, alienation, depression and shame.
What other film can visualise the past and the future so clearly without stepping one inch out of the present? Without magic or machines, writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan creates a house of mirrors so rich and revealing that the reflexions are immensely powerful. Uzak [Distant] shows two men so alienated from themselves, each other and the people around them, that they are forced to face what’s in front of them: the other man. And in realising that the one is the other in the past and the other is the one in the future, they retrieve deeper into themselves.
Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak) leaves his small town for Istanbul in search of a job. While looking for work he stays in the apartment of his cousin Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir), a middle-aged photographer, whose wife has left him recently. The social and cultural shock is felt immediately by both men. Yusuf wanders the streets of the city, not quite committing to find work. When it becomes quite clear that he is probably searching for something other than a job (perhaps some meaning to his life?), Mahmut loses his already very limited patience and tells Yusuf to leave.
Arguably the most revealing scene about the contempt Mahmut holds towards his country mouse of a cousin, Yusuf, is when tidying up his guest’s shoes he sprays them with air freshener. Surely, the problem for him is not the bad smell, or even the state of those ragged shoes, but what they represent: a fragment of his own past. From the outset Mahmut is unhappy with his cousin’s intrusion into his life. Unmotivated, apathetic, perhaps even depressed, Mahmut seems stuck in his own miserable rut. The feeling of embarrassment he feels about his origins, now awaken by Yusuf’s presence, only exacerbates his resentment towards his cousin.
..Not even the Garden of Eden can Save Mahmut from his Boredom.
If initially we might feel that the cultural gap between these two men is immense, as the story progresses we come to understand that the differences are to some extend only superficial. Mahmut is well established in his well-regarded profession; he discusses tough subjects with his friends; he consumes art-house films, like Tarkovsky’s Stalker. In contrast, Yusuf is blue-collar in appearance and demeanour; he feels lost in conversations about art; he can’t even chat to beautiful women through his lack of self-confidence. However, as we get to know Mahmut a little better we see that a great deal of his life is all façade.
In fact, he has become a different man to the one he wanted to be. In a way, he is further away from what he wants than Yusuf is; the distance between his present life and his ambitions is greater than what separates Yusuf’s predicament and his dream of finding a job on a ship. Apathy and resignation are the pillars by which Mahmut lives his life. The film only hints at explaining the reasons of such situation. Perhaps, Mahmut and his wife’s divorce triggered the whole thing. Or perhaps, he’s got a natural predisposition to get bored with things.
And although Mahmut surrounds himself with books, phones, computers and other means of communication, this does not seem to be enough to assuage his sense of alienation. Yusuf, although young, with his whole life ahead of him, seems to be in a similar paralysing situation. He wants a job bad enough. He follows and intends to connect with young women. He cares for his mother and plays the role of the responsible adult child. But how can one explain Yusuf’s apathetic attitude? He moved to the city to find work, to better his life, and perhaps help his family back in the countryside, and yet he acts he doesn’t care.
From the outset, Yusuf’s crisis seems more existential than simply material. The sadness and worry that emanate from his face seems to reflect an anxiety deeper than, and out of sync with, financial difficulties. That’s obviously not to downplay the importance of money matters in a person’s life. But money problems can be solved. The way I understand Yusuf’s angst is that it seems to be facing an insurmountable obstacle. Guilty, regret, nostalgia are all sentiments which paralyse him and transform Yusuf’s typical immigrant story into an extraordinarily poignant tale.
If Mahmut seems to wish to forget who he once was, Yusuf seems afraid to become the man he’s never been. One is ashamed of the past; the other is fearful for the future. Poignant. Poetic. Visually stunning. Ceylan’s masterpiece is many things at once, but above all, it is an insightful study of alienation and loneliness.