Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's film Three Monkeys, playing in competition at Cannes, uses the metaphor of the proverbial three monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil) to explore ideas about errors of judgment that blow up into unexpected consequences. The film's opening shot is a man driving a lonely road at night. Half-asleep at the wheel, he runs over a pedestrian in the road. Shortly after, another car drives up, sees the body on the road, but drives on, pausing only to take the license number of the car that hit him.
The hit-and-run driver, as it turns out, is a politician in the midst of a re-election battle. He calls his driver, Eyup (Yavuz Bingol) and convinces him to take the fall for the accident, with the promise of a hefty payday after he finishes a nine-month stint in prison for his boss's crime.
Of course, the politician promises, your wife and son will continue to receive your monthly salary while you're away -- off the books, of course, so there won't be any record of a shady payoff that could derail his political ambitions. Eyup's son, Ismail (Ahmet Rifta Sungar) has little ambition, but persuades his mother, Hacer (Hatice Aslan) that if only he had a car, he could take a particular job he has his eye on. They don't have the money to afford a car, but perhaps she could persuade his father's boss to give them an advance on his jail-time bonus. Hacer gets the cash, but ends up having a fling with her husband's boss that has disastrous consequences upon her husband's return from prison.
The pacing of the film is glacially slow at times -- what some might call meditative but others, less kindly, might consider indulgent -- but perhaps that's fitting for a film that's driven less by action and active decisions than by the hope that consequences will somehow just fade away. There are lots of moody shots of Ismail sprawled on his bed (he doesn't seem to have much else to do, besides that and hanging out with his rabble-rousing friends), of Hacer looking anxious, of Eyup glowering moodily.
The latter half of the film picks up the pace a bit, as Ismail discovers his mother's affair, Hacer takes her tryst with the politician far more seriously than he does, and Eyup returns from prison expecting to gratefully fall back into family life, only to discover his wife has been having a fling while he's been doing time for his boss's crime.
He seems far more offended over the idea of his wife betraying him while he's in jail to get his family a big financial payoff than over the fact that his boss killed someone and is getting off the hook, which evokes the idea that we're more likely to feel passionate emotions, both good and bad, about people we know well and love, while closing our eyes to the death of a random person we don't know at all. It's a rather depressing view of humanity, but if you watch the news with any degree of regularity, it's probably not that off the mark.
There are two rather haunting moments involving Ismail's long-dead brother that hint at delving more deeply into allegory; these are deftly shot, spooky scenes, and I found myself thinking that I'd rather have seen this film than the one I was seeing. But, so it goes.The film's grey and brown palette is gloomy and oppressive, with much of the film taking place in the family's small apartment; their home, fittingly, has a lovely expansive view of the sea, while inside where the family lives its day-to-day existence is cramped and shabby. Hacer's life, which seems largely confined to home and family, feels constrained and painted with a brush of endlessly mundane sameness.
When Ismail asks his mother to get the money for the car from Eyup's boss, she replies to him that she never do anything without asking Eyup's permission, because it just makes him angry. To a degree, then, the nine months Eyup spends in prison represent perhaps the most freedom Hacer has had in her married life. This single bit of dialog between mother and son makes her fling with her husband's boss -- and later, her falling in love with him -- that much more believable. Having had a taste of freedom, Hacer finds it hard to just blindly step back into the rigorous demands of being married to a man who demands her total compliance.
The film is visually quite pretty to look at, in spite of its moody browns and greys. Aslan's portrayal of a woman caught in a marriage she didn't realize she was chafing against until her husband goes away is quite strong; the latter scenes of the film, when she clings to her lover in the hopes of sustaining the temporary taste of freedom are quite powerful and moving. Bingol is also good; his seething rage upon learning of his wife's affair culminates in a tense scene between them in the bedroom in which you fear, along with Hacer, that the consequences of her fling might end up being tragic. And they do -- but, to Ceylan's credit, not in the way you expect.
The characters in this tale evoke a lack of moral grounding and thinking through of things that, perhaps, is intended to reflect upon broader implications of a societal tendency to make decisions within a bubble of self-absorption. Ceylan evokes a larger societal allegory by titling the film Three Monkeys; as much as this is a story about this family and the decisions they make to avoid facing the truth, it's also about our societal tendency to close our eyes to that which we'd prefer to ignore, and to make decisions in our lives for the immediate perceived benefit rather than the long-term implications.
Three Monkeys is very much an art-house sort of film; you're not likely to see it outside the festival circuit, unless it gets some kind of limited theatrical play in New York City; if you do get the chance to see it, though, it's certainly worth catching.