Shakespearian theater is about motivation. The characters discuss their motivations endlessly; at times, they turn to the audience to confide the reasons for their actions. For modern audiences, a play like Othello often seems overly explicit -- every nuance of the title character's suspicious actions is carefully disclosed and defined at great (and, if truth be told, sometimes tedious) length. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's new film, the much-lauded Winter Sleep (2014) involves a man of the theater, Mr. Aiden, apparently once a famous actor, who lives in his family's business, the Hotel Othello, in scenic Cappadocia. Ceylan's master is Chekhov, although Shakespeare and Dostoevsky are also named in the credits, somewhat comically, as inspirations for some of the dialogue and situations. Ceylan refuses to provide any clues as to motivation. We are forced to infer why the characters perform the actions dramatized. In Winter Sleep, Ceylan's strenuous absence of speeches defining motivation leaves the film a bit unfocused, blurry, not around the edges which are well-defined with interesting and vivid supporting characters, but, at its very center. An example must suffice for many: late in the film, someone points out that Mr. Aiden, after a devastating earthquake, opened his hotel to foreign relief organizations -- but he, also, refused to allow local victims to stay in the Othello. This is clearly crucial information and, certainly, illuminates Mr. Aiden's prickly and flawed character. But we are left to speculate as to whether this conduct partially explains his isolation and the evident distrust and, even, hatred that some local people feel for him. Was Aiden's arrogant and insensitive behavior after the earthquake a major cause for his dilemma or is it, merely, minor and incidental? Why did Aiden refuse to help local victims, letting foreigners stay in the hotel but not actual homeless victims? What was his motivation? We can certainly infer some of Aiden's reasons -- for instance, he clearly prefers cosmopolitan foreigners to the local peasants -- but the weight that we should give our inferences is unclear and ambiguous. Some ambiguity is good for an audience -- but with too much uncertainty, the viewer is likely to feel that the film is unresolved and, even, evasive, not good traits in a picture exceeding three and a quarter hours in length.
Much of Winter Sleep is brilliantly realized. The Cappadocian landscapes are astounding, pale, ghostly badlands against an infinite barren plain, and the acting is uniformly superb. There are spectacularly conceived sequences and much of the dialogue is fascinating. The film is sprawling in its ambition, a variant on Chekhov's Uncle Vanya with elements of Dostoevsky, speeches recited from Shakespeare, and, even, echoes of Ibsen's Doll House. A local grandee, Mr. Aiden is a famous actor who has returned to his home village in Cappadocia to run his family's hotel. Aiden's embittered sister, Necla, seems to have tended to their aging parents and the family enterprises (they own much property and are hated as landlords). Aiden was apparently estranged from his parents; at one point, his sister accuses him of not going to their graves for "even a minute." Aiden has a much younger wife, Nihel, the Desdemona/Nora figure in the plot. Shakepearian in its scope, the story has three principal strands: one plot, primary to the film, involves Aiden's conflict with a shabby, ingratiating local imam, Hamdi Hodja. Hodja is the brother of local hothead, Ismail, who has been in conflict with Aiden over rent (Aiden has hired a brutish collection agency to repossess the family's TV set and refrigerator and air-conditioner.) The hotheaded brother's small son hurls a rock through the window of a Land Rover that Aiden uses to patrol his properties setting up a tense confrontation between the peasant family and landlord that the smarmy Imam attempts to mediate. At the climax of the film, Aiden's wife, Nihel, is drawn into this dispute. The second plot strand involves Nihel's operation of a non-profit corporation from the hotel. Nihel is raising money for impoverished local schools. Aiden thinks his wife naïve and idealistic, and, further, believes the non-profit will be a vehicle for authorities to attack him and his family -- the film has long sections in which Aiden berates his wife citing tax exemption, record-keeping, and deductibility laws applicable to non-profits. The message is clear enough -- Nihel has been infantilized; she is a trophy wife like Nora in The Doll House, and any independent action on her part is intensely threatening to her domineering husband. The third element in the plot involves Aiden's internet ad for the hotel that suggests that the place owns horses. Of course, there are no horses but when a guest draws this to Aiden's attention, his vanity is wounded and he engages a local man to capture and tame one of the mustangs apparently roaming the badlands. Scenes involving the capture of the wild horse are disturbing and memorable -- the horse, it seems, would rather die than be captured. This part of the film involves wild-west panoramas and looks like something out of John Huston's 1960 The Misfits. Aiden is trying to write a history of Turkish theater, a book that the film suggests may not be worth writing. The three plots don't exactly coalesce at any point and the story about the horse is embarrassingly emblematic -- near the end, Mr. Aiden lets the poor horse free. The problem with the film is that it has three or four extended dialogue sequences -- two of them involving Aiden quarreling bitterly with his sister. These scenes drag the movie to a complete stop and are conspicuously over-written and theatrical: the scenes aren't sufficiently interesting to carry their length and the audience loses the thread of the argument in any event. The plot involving the insulted and injured Imam and his dysfunctional family -- his brother is violent drunk, a wife-beater, who has served six months in prison -- is the most interesting part of the film; Winter Sleep comes fully alive when this narrative is underway. But this plot accounts for only a quarter of the film -- the equally long story about Nihel's non-profit corporation is tedious and Aiden's objections, which are really about his wife's attempt at independence, are in such bad faith and so ludicrous that the viewers loses all respect for the character. The last quarter of the film involves Aiden's failed attempt to leave Cappadocia for Istanbul (in a blizzard) and Nihel's equally doomed effort to effect a reconciliation with the local Imam and his family. (Aiden writes for a local newspaper and in his column has attacked the Imam in a patronizing and cruel way.) At the end of the film, Aiden has got drunk to the point of explosive vomiting, gone hunting, and shot a rabbit. The rabbit provides him with an excuse to return home, presumably so that the poor beast can be prepared and cooked -- Nihel gazes down at Aiden as he stands shivering in the snowy courtyard of the Hotel Othello with his pathetic trophy, the great white hunter returned from his exertions.