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Acknowledge No Evil

Three Monkeys (2008)

Pyramide International

If Nuri Bilge Ceylan had been born 100 years ago, he would have been a painter of some renown. No one has the ability to capture looming storm clouds the way he can. It’s easy to imagine the shots from the apartment rooftop becoming those large paintings which museums take such pride in displaying. Mr. Ceylan is also a photographer, and the composition of all of his shots is careful and considered, with the framing almost as important as what the image shows us. The pity is that this careful attention captures “Three Monkeys” in a bell jar.

Eyüp (Yavuz Bingöl) works as a driver for Servet (Ercan Kesal), a politician who falls asleep at the wheel in the film’s opening sequence. His political chances are permanently ruined if this gets out, so he makes Eyüp an offer he cannot refuse: a generous payment and financial support in the meantime for his family if he confesses to the crime. Eyüp’s wife, Hacer (Hatice Aslan), and son, Ismail (Rifat Sungar), learn of his decision and his year-long sentence off-screen. They do not seem particularly upset, or worried, or angry. In fact, Eyüp’s absence folds into their everyday life in a way which is incredibly peculiar and unfeeling. Everyone is a little bit off in this film. Things only gets worse when Hacer approaches Servet directly for an additional sum so Ismail can buy a car. It all snowballs from there.

Mr. Ceylan has already been the recipient of a retrospective at the British Film Institute, despite “Three Monkeys” being only his fourth feature film. His third, “Climates” was another atmospheric curiosity about a failed relationship and the curdled love affairs that sprung from it, but apparently none of the reviews have discussed its really unpleasant treatment of its two female leads. They are there only for the male lead (whom Mr. Ceylan obligingly played himself) to use, both physically and psychologically. At one point, the husband even covers his wife with a pile of sand, nearly suffocating her – even if only a dream, it struck the viewer as the perfect clue to the emptiness at “Climates’” heart. One would not be further impressed towards the treatment of Hacer in “Three Monkeys.” Her embarrassing ringtone does most of her talking for her. We never see her directly making any choices, only the angry reactions of the men in her life and her annoyance at their interference. All the men in the film are physically cruel to her. And when she finally starts speaking for herself, she abases herself, and the film propagates her abasement.

Men behaving badly are merely humans demonstrating their foibles or quirks, to be tolerated in a spirit of exploration and understanding. But a woman behaving badly is a monster, and must be punished monstrously. This is the lesson of “Three Monkeys,” and it is a boring one. The title comes from the old Japanese koan of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” an apt summation of exactly what the men in this film fail to do.

What's mind-boggling is why the analysis of this film has missed this completely. The subtext of Servet’s political career has been analyzed into the ground, but this seems unimportant, except that it establishes Servet as someone with the need and the resources to protect his reputation at any cost. Mr. Ceylan co-wrote the script with star Mr. Kesal and wife Ebru Ceylan, who played the unhappy wife in “Climates;” this collaboration does not seem to have given them any extra insight into human behavior and how people behave within a family. What is really special about the film is Gökhan Tiryaki’s cinematography, in which the cramped family apartment is chopped up by shadows, the light from windows seems to fall away in despair and the heaviness of the air before a storm is palpable, even to us in the cinema.

The glory of the images also seems to have so dazzled most of the critics that the philosophical squalor of the lives this depicts has passed them by. Mr. Ceylan has been compared to Yasujiro Ozu, but his outlook is closer to François Ozon, whose eye for arresting images is only matched by his contempt for both his female characters and his actresses. In a way, Mr. Ceylan has played a confidence trick worthy of a David Mamet anti-hero. He purports to explain the relationships between four people whose lives are closely interlinked, but with a deep contempt and loathing of the one character who is the most blameless. He’s loaded the dice against Hacer, while pretending the game is fair, before humiliating and degrading her, while letting the men off lightly in comparison. A movie should be enjoyed, not endured. “Three Monkeys” is a singularly unpleasant piece of work, best avoided unless you’re into that sort of thing.


Opens on May 1 in New York and on Feb. 13 in Britain.

Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan; written by Ebru Ceylan, Ercan Kesal and Mr. Ceylan; director of photography, Gokhan Tiryaki; edited by Ayhan Ergursel, Bora Goksingol and Mr. Ceylan; art director, Ebru Ceylan; produced by Zeynep Ozbatur; released by Zeitgeist Films (United States) and New Wave Films (Britain). In Turkish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. This film is not rated by M.P.A.A. and is rated 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Yavuz Bingol (Eyup), Hatice Aslan (Hacer), Ahmet Rifat Sungar (Ismail) and Ercan Kesal (Servet).


I agree with you that the film shows a bleak view of the protagonists' lives. I think it might be a bit simplistic however to blame this bleakness on the writers and director of the film, and to suggest that it is their misogyny and misnthropy that is up on screen. I think rather that the care and craft that makes this film such compelling, if uncomfortable viewing might inspire the viewer to accept the story as being a powerful polemic against misogyny in contemporary Turkey. Yes, the female lead becomes more pathetic as the film progresses but surely pathos should inspire sympathy for a victim? I am not sure that at any point Ceylan "(pretends) that the game is fair" as you assert. I think instead that he uses shock to communicate to an international audience how a patriarchal culture can corrupt its citizens.

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