Three Monkeys is an (im)moral fable of personal politics. The plot feels ripped from a stage play, but the cinematography is so saturated and textured that I didn’t realize how classic the storyline was until the next day. The action starts before the film, but the conflict begins with an accidental death that prompts a man to strike a deal with a subordinate to take his jail time in exchange for money. You get the feeling the deal is done as much for loyalty as for pay, but loyalty isn’t the virtue it once was.

In doesn’t rain in a prison cell. The walls are surely witnesses to suffering but here they’re a shield. While his wife and son, temporarily living alone, quietly transgress, the story of loyalty turns into one of revenge. A simple enough switch, except every character is a criminal in some sense. Who ends up on the receiving end becomes the mystery. And well, I’ll leave you to find out for yourself, but suffice it to say, I didn’t watch the credits roll with a renewed sense of self-worth.

I’ve seen two of Nuri Bilge Ceylan‘s previous movies: Climates and Distant. Both are understated, serious and intelligent. Three Monkeys keeps serious and intelligent, but lets understated slide a bit. His visual style has progressed – reveling in the haunting, the surreal, and the Christopher Doyle. The same attention to detail shines in the intense close-ups as it does in the living rooms, offices and run-down neighborhoods of the film. The dialogue is kept to a minimum – amazing for something with such narrative bend. The tension evolves so systematically, it’s gutting.

Shakespeare plays strike a contemporary chord because they’re always relevant. Narcissism, fear, revenge, and pride are always modern. The morality play of Three Monkeys expends a great deal of energy trying to contextualize the tale in the modern world. All of that energy is visual. There are no overt references to the modern day. There is no vanity of the moment. And yet I couldn’t help but feeling throughout, in light of the world, that this was going to be a statement for today.

The San Francisco Film Society presents Three Monkeys at the Sundance Kabuki, June 26-July 2. Info.

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