Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys, Turkey’s measured and quietly devastating 2009 Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film, is a work in which every moody, darkly-lit frame offers a moment worth savoring. The same can be said of the director’s impressionistic Distant and Climates: his particular form of intellectually rigorous artistic expression is one that must be carefully taken in and ruminated over. In contrast to prior works, which focused on the plight of one or two individuals, here Ceylan chooses to analyze an entire deteriorating family, but retains his ability to visually articulate the depths of the human psyche in a way that few modern directors can. This is a pensive piece of art, one that blends noir sensibilities with acute melodrama, and is, regardless of his deviations from a perfected formula, quintessentially Ceylan.
The filmmaker spins a complex yarn, wherein wrongdoings impact each other until the deafening sound of thunderclaps drown out silent screams of guilt in the final scene. And even when Three Monkeys becomes a little too meditative and leisurely, it’s damn near impossible not to become entangled in this intricately woven plot right along with Ceylan’s meticulously crafted characters. The film’s title alludes to the three proverbial wise monkeys: see, hear, and speak no evil, casually sidestepping the fourth monkey oft depicted, which conveys the notion of “doing no evil,” not covering its eyes, ears, or mouth, but its crotch or abdomen instead. Guilt, the theme of this elliptical thriller, becomes a moral undercurrent, if not always a noticeable one: it’s a guilt that isolates and suffocates Ceylan’s characters the more they try to defend against or turn a blind eye to it. Does ignorance render truth non-existent, or does it merely accelerate the process of self-destruction? In Three Monkeys, Ceylan offers no easy answers to these existential questions.
Things are set in motion when Servet (Ercan Kesal), a Turkish politician responsible for a hit-and-run accident, appeals to his driver, Eyüp (Yavuz Bingöl), to take the rap for him. But with this pact comes the burden to Eyüp’s wife, Hacer (Hatice Aslan, who gives a moving, powerful performance), and their only son, Ismail (Ahmet Rıfat Şungar, a brooding, intense talent worth paying attention to), of living with this festering lie. The director shifts from character to character, rarely showing the family as a cohesive unit; Ceylan emphasizes fragmentation, familial and societal — even political, and as with many art films, one could be forgiven for assuming that little of consequence takes place in Three Monkeys. The director plants clues and hints that build to a succession of emotionally-charged moments of reckoning. Most of the motivations and actions that drive the film are mere elisions — unseen in action, but evinced in consequence. Three Monkeys is a dour film, with flashes of pitch-black humor and irony that evolve into a medium of tragic expression. Ceylan uses cramped, dark, and cluttered rooms to express excruciating claustrophobia, and his shots of Istanbul’s overcast, ominous, and thundering skies illustrate the character’s despair; for him, landscapes speak louder then words. Ceylan’s subdued tone, technical and expressionistic flair, and narrative complexity animate Three Monkeys with a muted ferocity and daring execution that renders it a tragedy of near-classic measurement, while also pitching it to the higher echelons of such noir/domestic drama hybrids.