An impassive man, statically framed in nearly imperceptible long shot slowly, and laboredly, traverses an untreaded, snow-covered open field carrying a duffle bag until he emerges in near frontal medium shot on the other side of the clearing towards a deserted rural road. It is an unhurried, deliberative image that recalls the extended final sequence of Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees as the romantically thwarted hero makes his way down the side of a hill to the area where an off-camera director has been surreptitiously observing him as he pursued the reluctant objective of his affection. The understated introductory image proves to be the first of several referential cues that filmmaker would incorporate to tell the deceptively simple, yet acutely observed story of a displaced laborer from the province, Yusuf (Emin Toprak), who, laid off from his factory job and unable to find new employment in his economically depressed village, decides to board a bus bound for Istanbul and arranges to stay at the home of his urbanite cousin, a successful and cosmopolitan art photographer named Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir), as he scouts the city for job opportunities in the hopes of being able to send money home to his aging (and equally destitute) parents and to lead what he perceives to be an exotic life as a global traveling freight ship worker (and perhaps more importantly, to permanently leave his bucolic, insular village). It is a visit that, however polite and cordial, begins to betray traces of Mahmut’s character as well, as Yusuf soon finds that he is locked out of his cousin’s apartment and is forced to wait at the front lobby while the preoccupied Mahmut, having forgotten Yusuf’s planned arrival, stays out into the late evening. Forced into accommodating a reluctant intrusion into his personal space, the intensely private and self-consumed Mahmut grows increasingly resentful and impatient over his aimless and naïve cousin’s underformed plans and passivity towards the execution of his seemingly half-hearted (and invariably fruitless) job search – a frustration that irreparably escalates when Mahmut returns from a visit with his hospitalized mother (Fatma Ceylan) to find that Yusuf had indifferently violated a series of his seemingly innocuous, pre-defined house rules during his brief absence.
Distant is an elegantly realized, pensive, and hauntingly lucid exposition on the nature of rootlessness, estrangement, and solitude. From the allusive opening sequence of Yusuf’s unhurried ascent onto a hillside road captured from the static camera, Nuri Bilge Ceylan creates a meditative – and refreshingly self-effacing – composition of distilled, concentrated imagery, narrative economy, and reverent paean to deliberately paced cinema. Ceylan’s allusions to Andrei Tarkovsky (both directly through a conversation with friends, and indirectly, through excerpts of Stalker and Mirror on television) serve to illustrate Mahmut’s innate understanding of the need (though not necessarily the willingness) for artistic and personal compromise. The evocative use of the melancholic theme from Theo Angelopoulos’ Landscape in the Mist (as Yusuf rides a streetcar through a shopping district) reinforces the film’s similar exploration into the themes of parental disconnection, profound isolation, and existential angst. Even the intrinsic, understated humor that pervades the film becomes a vehicle for a quaint homage in a scene reminiscent of Darezhan Omirbaev’s Kaïrat as the timid, introverted hero casually, but deliberately, brushes against an attractive young woman on a public bus. In the end, it is this acceptance of humility, thoughtful sense of place, and embrace of human idiosyncracy that is reflected in Mahmut’s early winter morning reverie on a park overlook as uniformly indistinguishable cargo ships navigate through the harbor – an observant reflection of the quiet, unarticulated desolation of self-imposed alienation, adriftness, and emotional transience – a longing to experience the familiar against a tranquil sea of faceless, disconnected anonymity.
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