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“Distant” elegantly examines the depths of existential emptiness

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s contemplative psychological drama from 2002 screens at UW Cinematheque on October 21.
Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir) sits alone on a bench by the water amidst the desolate, wintry landscape of modern Istanbul, while contemplating the Void of existence.
Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir) sits alone on a bench by the water amidst the desolate, wintry landscape of modern Istanbul, while contemplating the Void of existence.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s contemplative psychological drama from 2002 screens at UW Cinematheque on October 21.

When I first saw Distant at the Orpheum Theater in 2004 with my closest friend, who was also my roommate in a spartan efficiency apartment, it had a particularly profound effect on both of us. The minimalist art film reflects and dramatizes the stark psychological realities of coexisting in a physical space with another person—”like watching your life on-screen,” as my friend said.

Written, directed, produced, photographed, and edited by Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Distant (2002) presents an insightful, nuanced character study of two men grappling with the loneliness, disaffection, and transience of contemporary urban life. Devotees of contemplative, slow-burning, poetic cinema and ASMR will definitely not want to miss UW Cinematheque’s special screening of Ceylan’s semi-autobiographical third feature on Friday, October 21 at 7 p.m.

Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir), an urbane, world-weary commercial photographer who lives a solitary bourgeois existence in Istanbul, finds himself at an emotional, spiritual, and creative impasse. Once an aspiring filmmaker with pretensions to becoming the next Andrei Tarkovsky, Mahmut spends his leisure hours performing compulsive, ritualistic activities and watching inane TV programs in his comfortable bachelor pad (which was actually Ceylan’s own apartment).

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Haunted by the yawning gulf between his lofty artistic ideals and his monotonous professional duties, he just goes through the motions, devoid of any passion for his work. Mahmut’s sex life consists of discreet, perfunctory encounters with an unnamed lover (Nazan Kesal) who remains tactiturn and impassive in his presence. Although the nature of their relationship is ambiguous, she only seems to visit Mahmut at night and avoids eye contact when he spots her at a bar with another man. Mahmut still yearns for the affections of his ex-wife Nazan (Zuhal Gencer), but she disconcerts him suddenly with the news that she and her new husband are moving to Canada.

Out of the blue, Mahmut’s distant relative Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak, the director’s real-life cousin) arrives in Istanbul in search of work, imposing himself on Mahmut, and thus capsizing the fastidious photographer’s meticulously ordered existence. Yusuf has recently left his remote rural village, where the local factory closed down because of a recession. He vaguely plans to find a job on one of the ships in the port, but needs a place to stay until then. Mahmut clearly resents the unexpected intrusion into his personal space, yet feels obligated to assist his family.

Alas, Yusuf’s search for employment proves fruitless. He ends up idling in sailors’ coffeehouses, aimlessly wandering around the city, and tentatively stalking young women who catch his eye. Lacking confidence, sophistication, and financial security, he cannot bring himself to approach prospective romantic or sexual partners. Instead, Yusuf gazes furtively at them from a distance. 

In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Mahmut and Yusuf watch Tarkovsky’s Stalker at home together. Obviously bored by the film, Yusuf goes to bed. As soon as he leaves the room, Mahmut loads a porn DVD. When Yusuf suddenly returns to retrieve a magazine, Mahmut hurriedly switches to a random channel. Yusuf then lingers as Mahmut irritably waits for him to go back to bed.

Before long, Yusuf has overstayed his welcome and become a burden to Mahmut. The palpable tensions between the two men steadily accumulate like the snow that seems to be perpetually falling. Ceylan carefully cultivates a pervasive mood of melancholy, ennui, and quiet desperation by emphasizing ambient sounds and painterly images over dialogue and action. The frequently static camera minutely observes the awkward domestic situation with clinical detachment and a gently absurdist sense of humor. 

Distant unfolds in a seamless succession of long takes that throws into sharp relief the immense divide between the two individuals. However, Ceylan’s film also highlights the purposelessness and vacuity of Mahmut and Yusuf’s respective lives. Although they are polar opposites in many ways, the two men share an inability to communicate their feelings, the absence of any fulfillment in personal and professional pursuits, and a deep-seated sense of existential futility. 

With its elliptical narrative, psychological acuity, realistic performances, and rigorous, stunning compositions, Distant masterfully evokes the difficulty of forming meaningful connections in an increasingly alienating modern world. In Cahiers Du Cinéma, Ceylan states: “My first intention was to make a film on the emptiness of life, the sensation of the void and uselessness.” While the prospect of watching such a movie might seem bleak and depressing, the power of Distant derives from the auteur’s exceptional ability to absorb viewers in the fine details of everyday life.

Distant should be seen in a movie theater if viewers are to truly appreciate the subtle impact of its pure visual poetry and immersive sound design. Ceylan uses a deceptively simple premise to craft a vividly atmospheric, richly textured, and mesmerizing meditation on the human condition. His portrait reveals unexpected depth in existential emptiness, fleeting beauty in the spiritual wasteland of advanced industrial society, and elusive, ineffable truths in the spaces between human beings.

Upon revisiting Distant some 18 years later, at a different stage in my life, the film played much more like a deadpan black comedy. Wryly humorous visual gags that had completely escaped my attention the first time around became the source of inward laughter. While Distant left a deep impression on me initially, I have an entirely newfound recognition of its high aesthetic quality after incubating with it for all these years and watching so many other films. Ceylan’s understated masterpiece has aged like an elegant wine. Distant offers connoisseurs of film and patient viewers an elevated cinematic experience, and lonely souls the consolation of great art.

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