As Hollywood films become ever more breathless — with special effects sidelining nearly all plot and character development, and digital-editing abuse leading to few shots that last beyond a second — art cinema has moved just as extremely in the opposite direction, with slow, meticulous pacing; long, steady shots where seemingly nothing happens; and a meditative focus on the mundane, punctuated by fleeting moments of emotion, or maybe just the change of light as afternoon turns to evening.
“Bal,” which won the Golden Lion award at the Berlin Film Festival, is one such example of the recent (and mostly festival-driven) boom in what is known as “slow cinema”, a healthy, fiber-rich alternative to the empty calories of Hollywood fast food. It is epitomized by directors such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Béla Tarr and Carlos Reygadas, although Gus Van Sant’s dabbling in the form (with “Last Days” and “Gerry”) might be better known locally.
“Bal,” which means “honey” in Turkish, follows a young boy named Yusuf (Bora Altas) who lives on the edge of a forest in a thinly populated region of eastern Turkey. He hikes to school every day, where he is eager but inept at reading, suffering from a stutter when called on.
His father, Yakup (Erdal Besikçioglu), is the only person Yusuf can talk to, albeit in a whisper. Yakup, a beekeeper, takes his son with him into the forest, where he shows him how to harvest honey from atop tall trees. The bees are dying off, though, and one day Yakup goes alone deep into the forest in search of some elusive black honey. He doesn’t return, and Yusuf only slowly begins to grasp the enormity of this.
That’s pretty much the whole film, right there. Director Semih Kaplanog˘lu, following the by now well-established template for slow cinema, eschews incident and plot in favor of letting his camera dwell on the rhythms of nature and manual labor, with birds flying through the trees, bees buzzing around flowers and Yakup working with his ropes or fumigator. All in long, fixed-take shots, naturally.
Slow to a fault, “Bal” nevertheless has its charms, both in the father-son relationship, which is sketched with real affection, and its nostalgic depiction of the loss of childhood innocence. Kaplanog˘lu attempts to immerse us in a time and place that has been mostly lost to progress, an approach similar to, say, Tran Anh Hung’s “The Scent of Green Papaya,” but minus that film’s sensuous sheen.
Between the excessive critical praise and awards heaped on films such as “Bal” at the festivals, and the miniscule-to-nonexistent audiences for them in the few markets where they manage to open, there isn’t much middle ground when it comes to slow cinema. And yet that’s where I currently find my own opinion residing: I can certainly see the beauty of an oblique, contemplative approach — and would point to films like “The Return” (2003) or “Of Gods and Men” (2010) as superior examples — but it tends to work best when you feel you’re in confident hands, with a clear sense that each scene is building on and adding to a coherent whole. In an inferior work, the logic is less apparent, with entire scenes dragging on well beyond necessary, which may in fact be the point.
I recalled that Nick James of Sight & Sound magazine kicked off a tempest in the film world last year with an editorial he wrote questioning whether slow cinema had become a kind of critical orthodoxy. Rereading it this week, I was surprised to see that the film that sparked his outburst was “Bal.” James called it “a beautifully crafted work that suffers from dwelling too much on the visual and aural qualities of its landscape. … There are times, as you watch someone trudge up yet another woodland path, when you feel an implicit threat: Admit you’re bored and you’re a philistine. Such films are passive-aggressive in that they demand great swathes of our precious time to achieve quite fleeting and slender aesthetic effects.”
I couldn’t put it any better; James was savaged for these remarks, but for my money he nailed it. After two viewings of “Bal,” I can say with confidence that something close to a third of the film’s scenes could have been cut with little or no loss to what the director was trying to impart: Their inclusion is either filler or a solipsistic focus on cinematography at the expense of story. Kaplanog˘lu himself has said, “There is nothing wrong with a little boredom”; the viewer of “Bal” had best agree with the director in advance. (Spoiler alert!) The film’s climactic ending shot — a long-held take of Yusuf fast asleep — seems rather apropos.