Patience is rewarded when watching the visually alluring and, ultimately, poignant “Lake Tahoe.” A lanky teenager crunches his Nissan Tsuru into a telephone pole off camera. Just after daybreak, an unhurt Juan (Diego Cataño) begins to walk into his somnolent coastal village, and the initial twenty minutes slink by at a placid pace as he searches the deserted streets for a repair shop. As he ventures through the town during the day, he encounters Don Heber (Hector Herrera), a grizzled mechanic who shares cereal with his dog at the table, Lucia (Daniela Valentine) a bored, music-obsessed teen mum working an auto-parts store register, and David (Juan Carlos Lara, II) a young handyman and Bruce Lee acolyte. Director Fernando Eimbcke slowly, delicately and respectfully exposes increasingly deep layers to a film fundamentally about companionship, grief and loss. “Lake Tahoe” becomes much more than a tale about a kid and his car troubles.
From the first images, Eimbcke creates beautifully weighted, balanced compositions. Every shot is framed with exacting symmetry. Filming in the Gulf of Mexico port city of Progreso, Eimbcke and cinematographer Alexis Zabé capture the slumberous vibe of an abandoned Yucatán beach town during tourism off season. The camera sits steadily – the film doesn’t appear to utilize any pan shots – and drapes the unassuming buildings and undecorated streets in muted sherbet colors with geometrical precision. (The soporific sensation is enhanced by Eimbcke and editor Mariana Rodriguez using an effective editing technique; many scenes are separated by a blank, darkened screen, like an empty title card, to accentuate the feeling of time passing slowly. Like the film, the technique grows in effectiveness.) At first, scenes can appear to be a simple view but with Eimbcke’s affinity for long takes, the pictures illustrate great depth; the foreground and background are tantamount in his vision. Lovely images abound in this way, such as when Lucia chats to Juan about favorite songs while he holds her baby at the counter as the camera finds numerous visual levels through the doorways of the shop. Similarly, the detail is exquisite in a scene where Juan’s little brother’s shadowy self is seen silhouetted inside a tent in the family’s backyard, and in a meticulous moment when Juan stands pondering in front of a playground where children sway on perpendicular swing sets.
As the thoughtful, but never languorous film continues, the revelations become more meaningful. When Juan returns to his home, he tries to speak to his depressive mother through the bathroom door, but with her plaintive cries to be left alone, he opens the door to find her in the tub, her body hidden by the half-closed curtain, a weary hand reaching out to tap a cigarette into an ashtray perched on the ledge. And a scene in the final reel where Juan has agreed to babysit for Lucia is potent for its simplicity as the camera films unobtrusively and uncut from the corner of a bedroom. They sit apart, next to each other on her bed. Lucia moves closer to him, then closer still. They embrace, clinging, tenderly, a son in mourning for his father, a young lady frightened by the loss of youth. The aesthetically pleasing merges with the emotionally engrossing and an emerging expressive and accomplished filmmaker speaks intensively with the unspoken.
If “Lake Tahoe” is compelling for the precise and powerful images, then Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Three Monkeys” is a commanding articulation of aural storytelling.
On the cusp of an election, Servet (Ercan Kesal), an Istanbul businessman running for office, hits and presumably kills, a pedestrian with his plush sedan on a dark country road. Witnesses view the aftermath but not the cowering perpetrator. Servet calls the home of his driver, Eyüp (Yavuz Bingol) in the wee hours and asks him to take the fall. He’ll do six months, a year at most, Servet assures Eyüp, whose inscrutable face possesses a prominent bristle brush of a moustache and steely eyes. Besides, the boss reiterates to his employee, he will pay Eyüp’s salary to his family while he’s locked up and then endow him with a massive lump sum when he is released. Eyüp is being asked, but he knows fate has colluded to give him no choice — if his boss is busted, he’s out of a job and the substantial payoff – so he agrees with a cursory, impassive nod, his breath deep, reflective and resigned.
Once Eyüp enters prison, “Three Monkeys” shifts to the lives of his wife, a cooking instructor named Hacer (Hatice Aslan), and their late teen son, Ismail (Rifat Sungar), an obstinate lad, before his dad’s incarceration, who’s still waiting for his wispy moustache to grow out. They co-exist tenuously in the apartment above busy train tracks next to the Sea of Mamara as opportunism, infidelity, and violence converge. Things only become more tumultuous with Eyüp’s release.
But all along, it’s the sounds which resonate most vividly. Open windows broadcast gulls hovering in a vessel’s wake, waves petting the shore, and trains thrusting through tunnels. The blades of a fan cut through the air and a clock ticks ominously. Snoring, slurps, and exhales intrusively amplify the intimacy. It’s a movie of sounds so prevalent that they become an inexorable character, a palpable presence. The ring tone on Hacer’s cell phone plays a forlorn ballad so insistently that it’s a threat, especially when Eyüp rummages in her oversized purse.
The sound department does stupendous work. Sound editor Umut Senyol, foley editor Mustafa Durma and foley artist Jack Stew, an industry veteran of more than 140 films who just last year worked on “Hellboy II” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” create a textured palette of noises and expressions. In too many Hollywood films, a sound such as a footstep is so overplayed that someone with the pitter patter of, say, Kristin Chenoweth mimics Michael Clarke Duncan and Vince Vaughn in a game of Double Dutch. Too often, they don’t want subtlety; the steps in “Three Monkeys” are so nuanced you can hear the grit in the heel.
The film ends at night with thunder, lighting, and rain falling like a snare drum brush. The wind from the coast shifts a rickety, raised patio so that the wood audibly aches. Crickets purr, a cat’s paws skim across the brick street, and foot steps echo in a narrow, cobbled road, quiet sounds reverberating.