Jury deliberations at the 2000 Istanbul Film Festival quickly turned contentious. A member who had hitherto remained so reticent that we wondered if she would ever proffer any opinion suddenly erupted with a ferocious denunciation of our choice for the festival’s top prize. We had narrowed the selection to two films that could not have been more dissimilar: Raúl Ruiz’s lavish version of Proust, Time Regained, with a cast headed by Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich, and Clouds of May, a diminutive rural drama acted by nonprofessionals, including the parents and cousin of its Turkish director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Accusing us of orientalism by favoring Clouds of May, which she insisted would soon be forgotten, over a masterpiece destined to become a classic, the jurist castigated our decision as naive and patronizing. We cowered but held firm. Both sides in the dispute eventually proved prescient. Time Regained, an eccentric work of genius that warrants repeat viewings, is unlikely to be supplanted as the greatest of all films based on Proust, while Ceylan’s prize helped establish his reputation.

Ceylan, who was born in Istanbul in 1959, came late to filmmaking, after half-heartedly studying to become an engineer like his father. Having indulged his passions for photography, classical music, and movies in various campus clubs and at the Istanbul cinematheque, he spent time in London, where his youthful impatience with art cinema—he admits to once walking out of an Andrei Tarkovsky film halfway through, bored and perplexed—gave way to a reverence for the canonical modernist works of Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Robert Bresson, and even Tarkovsky, the directors who would have an enduring influence on his own films.

Ceylan resumed cinema studies in Istanbul after his mandatory stint in the army, but like so many of the characters in his movies who never complete their projects, he abandoned school to star in a friend’s short film. Having acquired basic techniques, Ceylan bought a primitive Arriflex camera to make a poetic short, Cocoon (1995), which took more than a year to shoot and edit. Cocoon opens with a series of vintage photographs of his parents, Fatma and Mehmet Emin Ceylan, who appear in all his early works, including the autobiographical Provincial Trilogy, consisting of The Small Town (1997), Clouds of May (1999), and Distant (2002). Many of the formal elements of Ceylan’s subsequent films are apparent in Cocoon: a montage of still photographs; ambient sound that emphasizes nature (wind, thunder, pelting rain, birdsong); the use of doors and windows as framing devices; the spare employment of classical music (Bach, Vyacheslav Artyomov); and the radical interplay of figure and landscape, long shot and close-up. (His father’s grizzled visage and his mother’s imperturbable face receive intense, loving scrutiny.) Even a tortoise, a crucial metaphor in Ceylan’s first two features, makes an appearance. One aspect of Cocoon, its total lack of dialogue, remains an anomaly. Ceylan’s recent films have become increasingly garrulous; the non-Turkish viewer spends more time reading their subtitles than attending to their painterly images.

Ceylan moved at the age of two with his parents to his father’s hometown, Yenice, in the Aegean environs of Çanakkale, where he grew up in a traditional rural culture; the only music was local folk, and the cinema offered Turkish westerns and melodramas whenever the town’s erratic electricity was functioning. With its sere cornfields, serried hillsides, and occasional copse, the landscape surrounding Yenice provided the dramatic setting for the Provincial Trilogy, though only briefly in Distant as a place from which to escape. In his black-and-white first feature, The Small Town, Ceylan’s abrupt segue from enshrouded mist and snow to summery sunshine—emphasizing his belief that Turkey has only two seasons, with little transition—set the pattern for his metaphorical use of the Anatolian topography and weather.

From early on, Ceylan cast several of his male characters as stand-ins for himself; they are variously self-absorbed, manipulative, callous, or merely obtuse. Unlike the caustic autocritiques of Jean Eustache or Maurice Pialat, his reprovals, perhaps because of his genial demeanor, rarely betoken self-loathing. Rather, Ceylan seems to employ his solipsistic proxies to measure the extent of his own culpability. (He described his temperament before he became a parent as “quite dry.”)

In Clouds of May—obviously influenced by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, to whom he has acknowledged a debt—Muzaffer, a young filmmaker, returns to his hometown to coax his parents and other relatives into acting in his first feature, a work that greatly resembles The Small Town. (The mother and father are again played by Ceylan’s parents.) He promises his cousin, Saffet, who is desperate to leave for the city, that he will find him a job in Istanbul after the filming, then exploits the young man as an unpaid assistant. The two travel to an uncle’s home to shoot a screen test, ignoring the aged man’s physical ailments and emotional pain—his wife has recently died—in their heedless determination to finish the film. When it is nearing completion, Muzaffer blithely reneges on his pledge, advising Saffet that life is too difficult in Istanbul and leaving the young man stranded in the hinterland.


Another forlorn cousin does manage to escape the countryside for Istanbul in Ceylan’s next film, Distant, which was his first feature to be invited to compete at the Cannes Film Festival. (It was once again up against a film by Raúl Ruiz, this time the forgettable That Day.) Acclaimed as the best film at the festival—admittedly the entries were abysmal that year—Distant vaulted Ceylan to the pinnacle of international cinema. It also burdened him with the status of the premier exemplar of “slow cinema,” reflecting his propensity for long takes, spare dialogue, and constrained camera movement.

A melancholy tale of two solitudes, Distant depends on a conventional country-and-city schema, though it leans less on the opposition of innocence and experience than on a description of parallel states of emotional privation. Mahmut, a disillusioned Istanbul photographer who squanders his talent on commercial projects, deferring his own artistic plans—he is the first of Ceylan’s self-thwarting intellectuals—reluctantly invites his cousin Yusuf, an unemployed villager, to stay with him while the latter looks for a seafaring job. Mahmut attempts to quash Yusuf’s dreams of sailing to foreign cities by asserting that “every place ends up looking the same.” Both men are isolated and adrift, yearning for women who don’t want them, but loneliness is pretty much all they have in common, and they are soon squabbling over petty domestic irritations: smelly shoes, cigarette smoke, a gluey mousetrap.

In Distant Ceylan pays homage to one of his favorite films, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but also deploys it as a cinephilic joke: Mahmut wields it as a psychological weapon, showing it to Yusuf in hopes that it will bore him into decamping, and later uses it as high-toned cover for watching porn. The bleak landscapes of Stalker may have inspired Ceylan, connoisseur of the inclement, to take advantage of a rare snowstorm; he shot the roiling Bosporus under sullen winter skies with the compositional eye of Caspar David Friedrich. (The director’s predilection for dramatic meteorological effects, which often reflect the psychic state of his characters, occasionally edges toward pathetic fallacy.)

The young actor who played both Saffet and Yusuf, Ceylan’s cousin Mehmet Emin Toprak, died in a car accident soon after learning that Distant was invited to Cannes and posthumously received the Best Actor award (which he shared with Muzaffer Ozdemir) at the festival. Toprak’s close association with the locale of Yenice prevented the distraught Ceylan from returning to that landscape, so he shot his next film, Climates (2006), in three far-off settings—the ruins of Sardis, Istanbul, and a rural village in eastern Turkey—whose geographic differences he duplicates, as the title suggests, with contrasting weather. (The film opens in punishing heat and concludes in copious snow.) A Bergman-like study of marital dissolution, Climates stars Ceylan himself as an egotistical university professor who incessantly collects material for a thesis that will probably remain unfinished, and the director’s wife, Ebru, as his spouse, a much younger television art director chafing resentfully under her husband’s indifference.

Ceylan’s conversion to digital filmmaking in Climates may account for the increase in visual experimentation, particularly the startling juxtaposition of intense close-ups with long vista shots and his (over)use of extreme shallow focus. In Three Monkeys (2008), he desaturated his palette so that the light often appears sallow and sickly, tinging his images with a sense of dread. Ceylan refashioned the storyline of a classic melodrama, The Father (1971), by the greatest previous auteur of Turkish cinema, Yılmaz Güney, into an elliptical contemporary noir. After a wealthy politician accidentally kills a man on a nighttime rural road, he convinces his driver to take the rap in return for a large payout when he gets out of prison. In James M. Cain fashion, the driver’s wife falls in love with the politician while her husband languishes in jail. Marital infidelity frequently leads to disaster in Ceylan’s cinema, and the brief affair occasions a second death, this time intentional, and another deal to escape punishment—the postman ringing twice.

Ceylan allows one vibrant color into Monkeys’ leached monochrome, which he assigns to the errant wife: her crimson apron, purse, sweater, and negligee suggest suppressed passion, like the pop song that plays as her phone’s ringtone: “I hope you love and are never loved back.” The director’s strategic use of red might also indicate a debt to the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, whose late films privilege red details in their stringent compositions. The apples pared in one continuous peel in both The Small Town and Clouds of May are evidently references to the end of Ozu’s Late Spring (1949), and Ceylan cites Ozu’s domestic dramas as one of his greatest cinematic influences. (Ozu’s vexed households, which Ceylan claims provided the model for his own familial portraits, hardly resemble the fractured clans in Three Monkeys and, a decade later, The Wild Pear Tree.)


Ceylan turned from film noir to police procedural in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), its predominant genre subsuming many others—ghost story, road movie, western, murder mystery, nocturne. Transpiring over a single night and the following morning, the film, Ceylan’s best, achieves novelistic density as it follows a convoy carrying soldiers, a medical examiner, a prosecutor, a police chief, and two men who have confessed to a murder but cannot remember where they buried the body. As the search party traverses the steppes of Anatolia on winding roads reminiscent of Kiarostami’s byways, the men’s small talk—about the merits of buffalo yogurt or the cathartic effect of target practice—gradually drifts toward confession.

The melancholy doctor from Istanbul, one of a gallery of Chekhovian characters in Ceylan’s cinema, concedes that his boredom with rural life is congealing into emotional impasse. The prosecutor dwells on the death of his wife, which may have been a suicide. And the volatile policeman keeps returning to, then avoiding, the subject of his young son’s illness. The eventual unearthing of the corpse at the burial site takes on metaphorical import; each of the trio exhumes repressed facts from his own past that accumulate into a sense of collective loss and trauma. The autopsy of the murder victim reveals that he was hog-tied to fit his body into a small vehicle and then buried alive, a detail the doctor omits in his final report, as if he cannot bear to acknowledge one more indignity. The film’s widescreen images of the Anatolian countryside in consuming darkness approach the preternatural; its obscure interiors are no less effective. When the young daughter of the local muhtar (mayor) appears out of the night with a tray of tea, her pale, lamplit beauty, straight out of Georges de La Tour, moves one of the murderers to startled tears.

The shooting ratio of Ceylan’s films burgeoned as his career progressed: the 157 minutes of Once Upon a Time were condensed from 120 hours of footage. Protraction abets Ceylan’s penchant for digression and colloquy, which unfortunately turn to verbosity and bloat in his subsequent features, Winter Sleep (2014) and The Wild Pear Tree (2018). The title of the former tauntingly hints at its soporific tone; its over three-hour running time is dedicated largely to dialogue extensively adapted from Chekhov’s short stories “The Wife” and “Excellent People,” with an occasional assist from Dostoevsky. Ceylan, who says he has a “Russian soul,” claims his life was never the same after reading Crime and Punishment in his teens, and he told a Turkish film magazine that “no matter how much we read and write about Chekhov, we cannot get enough of him; he has contributed to almost all of my films, and even beyond that, he has taught me how to live.”

Ceylan’s veneration for nineteenth-century Russian literature, long common among Turkey’s intelligentsia, induces enervation in Winter Sleep. Set among the fairy chimneys and alluvial arabesques of Cappadocia, a locale Pier Paolo Pasolini used to fierce effect in Medea (1969), the film portrays a retired middle-aged actor who has inherited a country inn, renamed the Hotel Othello, where he spends his time planning to write a history of Turkish theater (in Chekhov, the proposed tome is a history of railroads) when he is not tormenting his divorced sister and idealistic young wife with patronizing advice or dealing with his indebted tenants (impoverished rather than starving as in Chekhov). In a state of emotional hibernation, the two women feel trapped by their wintry isolation and long for Istanbul—“My soul is withering here,” laments one—while the supercilious actor, pointedly named Aydın, meaning “enlightened,” eventually sets out for the city only to return, stymied by the weather and by his desire for reconciliation with the wife he has ritually humiliated for her naive philanthropy. (His repentant voice-over is taken almost verbatim from Chekhov.) Ironically, Winter Sleep was awarded Cannes’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, after Ceylan’s better films had repeatedly received lesser awards there.

Ceylan has said contradictory things about the use of music in his films. At times he has echoed Bresson’s edict against it—“music kills things,” Ceylan once warned—but he gilds the majestic landscapes of Winter Sleep with added sublimity by repeatedly using the andantino from Schubert’s A Major sonata, which Bresson famously merged with a donkey’s bray in Au hasard Balthazar (1966) before renouncing music tracks altogether.

In The Wild Pear Tree Ceylan relies on a Bach passacaglia in another chronicle of futile undertakings and unfinished projects (here, the digging of a well), youthful drift, familial conflict—especially between father and son—and betrayal. A college student returns from Çanakkale to his provincial hometown, where his father’s gambling addiction has left the family deep in debt and soon to have their electricity shut off. (In a Chekhovian moment, his teenage sister muses that everything desirable is “so far away.”) The misanthropic student, intent upon getting his autofictional novel published, proves to be one of Ceylan’s more despicable characters, laughing at a friend’s boast about being a policeman who gets to beat up leftists, needling a famous writer he encounters in a bookstore with spiteful questions about the literary scene, tossing statuary he has accidentally broken on a bridge into the water, and secretly selling his father’s beloved dog. The ensemble acting is impeccable—Ceylan’s cinema is known for its unerring performances—but a long dream sequence involving the giant Trojan horse left in Çanakkale from the shoot of the Brad Pitt film Troy (2004) appears forced and discordant, and Pear’s incessant dialogue, especially in a lengthy debate with two imams captured in an extended ambulatory shot, reminds one of Hitchcock’s admonition that films should not be “photographs of people talking.”

The title of Ceylan’s latest work, About Dry Grasses (2023), slyly alludes to the desiccated nature of its protagonist, Samet, a schoolteacher in an eastern Anatolian outpost who is in his final term of compulsory service and hopes to return to Istanbul after four years of what he deplores as provincial deprivation. In many ways a compendium of Ceylan’s cinema, About Dry Grasses repeats themes, settings, and images from as far back as his first feature, The Small Town. Like that film, it opens in snowy desolation, the director’s reputation for “slow cinema” again borne out by the first static shot, lasting over one minute, of Samet trudging through winter drifts in another of Ceylan’s Friedrich-like compositions of a lone figure set against a vast, engulfing landscape.

Samet considers himself charitable and compassionate, not unlike the corrupt politician in Three Monkeys who prides himself on his ability to weep at poetry recitations, and believes he is bringing progressive ideas to the backward, tradition-bound village. When two girls, one of whom Samet has indulged as his favorite pupil, accuse the teacher and his housemate, Kenan, a local who is also an instructor, of impropriety, Samet reveals the limits of his liberalism in a bitter tirade unleashed upon his drawing class: “None of you will become artists. That’s clear. You’ll plant potatoes and sugar beets, so the rich can live comfortably…. That’s reality. Nothing we can do.”

Samet and Kenan vie for the romantic attention of Nuray, a leftist English teacher from a nearby village who lost a leg in a terrorist bombing some years before and who has more or less abandoned activism for painting. When Samet realizes that she is more attracted to Kenan, his jealousy, and his aggrieved belief that it was Kenan the students were after and not him, impel him to scheme against his friend to win Nuray’s affection, betraying everyone in the process. To what extent Ceylan intends Samet as another of his alter egos remains uncertain, given the character’s heedless deceit, but he does share one cardinal aspect with the director: he is a fine photographer, as two montages of his portraits, obviously Ceylan’s own work, attest. Again Grasses recalls an earlier film, as a similar montage of still photos appears near the end of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.

Two-thirds of the way through the more than three-hour film, Ceylan stages a protracted dinner discussion between Nuray and Samet in which they debate politics, her call for solidarity and advocacy contending with his libertarian preference for individual freedom. “Is this a goodness contest?” he demands, then asks, in an echo of the actor’s remonstration in Winter Sleep, “Does everyone need to be a hero?” Soon after, Samet suddenly exits Nuray’s apartment, which is revealed to be a film set, and in a long winding follow shot traverses the surrounding soundstage, with its huddled technicians and lighting equipment, before returning to Nuray’s bedroom, a Brechtian breach unlike anything else in the director’s cinema. Ceylan was initially unsure about this inclusion, though he recently said he felt the shot was “in harmony with the film.” It isn’t. Like About Dry Grasses’ overexplicit coda, which reverses the seasonal and geographic schema of Climates by transitioning from a snowy remote village to ancient ruins under summer sun, the rupture betrays the subtlety of the rest of this masterly work.

Gönül Dönmez-Colin’s anthology The Films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan is most valuable in bringing a Turkish perspective to criticism of his work. Only two of its contributors are not originally from Turkey, and the volume offers essential commentary on aspects of local culture and politics and on the resonance of certain words, names, characters, music, and locales to which a non-Turkish critic would probably be oblivious. Published before the release of About Dry Grasses, the anthology probes the political themes in Ceylan’s films, despite his frequent, perhaps disingenuous, denial that his films ever have a political intent and his contention that topicality quickly dates a movie, especially in a turbulent country like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey. Presenting About Dry Grasses at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, the director insisted, “I don’t like politics, and I don’t like political movies,” and he characterized any such details in the film as mere “background.” (The film’s sometimes oblique but insistent references to Kurdish and Alawite sectarianism, state negligence, terrorist bombings, Marxist activism, and guerrilla warfare suggest otherwise.)

Unfortunately the thickets of jargon and bizarre neologism in Dönmez-Colin’s anthology, its slavish invocations of Gilles Deleuze, and its use of films to illustrate theory are dispiritingly common in contemporary cinema studies. As Mahmut suggests in Distant, every place ends up looking the same.

Owing to a production mishap, an earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to the Raúl Ruiz film The Day rather than That Day, to the ruins of Kaş rather than the ruins of Sardis, and to Robert Bresson’s renunciation of soundtracks rather than music tracks.