By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated March 11, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Watch enough foreign-language films in which haphazardly shaven men sit motionless holding lit cigarettes for long stretches while strangers pass by, and silence begins to acquire its own cultural color palette. The frequently wordless melancholy of the haunting Turkish drama Distant — Grand Prix winner at the 2003 Cannes film festival — is a blend of European and Asian sensibilities, jaded sophistication, and practical naïveté as complex as the continent-spanning country itself. And for emphasis, writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (”Clouds of May”) tells of the unbridgeable distances that isolate two men, distant relatives, temporarily sharing an Istanbul flat.

The gloomy host (Muzaffer Özdemir) is a successful photographer disillusioned about work (he neglects his artistic ideals for commerce) and women (divorced, he retreats to porn videos and casual sex). The timid guest (Mehmet Emin Toprak) is a country cousin who leaves his village after the local factory closes and comes to Istanbul hoping to get a job on a ship. (The actors also shared a Cannes acting award; Toprak died in a car accident shortly after filming was completed.)

The characters couldn’t be more different on the face of it — or more alike in their mutual inability to connect with other yearning humans. And Ceylan, who also served as cinematographer, frames the affecting, unstudied performances in gorgeously chosen shots and nonevents that sometimes teeter on the edge of comedy before knocking us breathless with their emotional power.