Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Sour Apples (Ekşi Elmalar)

Written and directed by Yilmaz Erdoğan
Featured March 30 & April 8 at the 17th Annual Boston Turkish Film Festival
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Sour Apples is a modern-day Shakespearean comedy written and directed by Yilmaz Erdoğan, who also stars in it as Hakkâri’s vain and overbearing mayor. It’s 1977, and the mayor has just lost his election to a third term, but until his dying day he will remain “the mayor,” severe and unsmiling, dressed in tailored clothes, and driven about by his manservant, Yusef.
We know this is a lighthearted comedy from the opening’s fun, farcical music, which also plays between scenes. It’s snowing outside at the mayor’s house, which sits in front of a jagged mountain peak in southeastern Turkey. Inside the dusky parlor, men listen to the election results with their candidate seated before them as if on a throne. They kiss his hand as they leave, expressing regret for his loss.
Turkey’s turbulent politics of the 1970s and 80s thread through the background of this heartwarming love story, narrated by the mayor’s youngest daughter Muazzez. She recalls the family’s past to her aged father, who can no longer silence or punish her for what she tells him because he has Alzheimer’s. We hear how her city was known for two things: the mayor’s apple orchards and the mayor’s daughters.
And oh, what daughters!—Türkan, Safiye, and Muazzez. Their adolescent beauty, flowing dresses and tresses, laughter and gaiety, and conniving plots to get the men they want rather than their father’s choices, launch the movie in its Shakespearean vein. The character Sino carries letters and messages between the illicit lovers; the grotesque, traveling merchant, Etar, brings gossip to the women; and lovable, blundering Hatip, in love with Safiye, can be counted on for laughter.
The women’s lives are so restricted that Muazzez hasn’t learned to read or write, and yet this distressing state of women is treated in a parodic way, keeping the story playful. When Muazzez spies Özgür—a true Romeo—it’s love at first sight, with humor woven into the lovers’ action and dialogue. Özgür comes from cosmopolitan Ankara and asks Muazzez: How can boys see girls in this town? She answers: You marry them.
The story progresses and we watch Muazzez’s two older sisters go through exactly that process of marrying before meeting their patriarch’s choices for them. The girls’ mother Ayda is like one of the sisters, having been betrothed at age fourteen. She often joins in her daughters’ merrymaking and whispered schemes, showing how the women share a secret world of romance novels, movie star pin-ups, and natural urges they have to hide from their male authority.
As the years pass, the unemployed mayor can’t afford his lifestyle any longer, and if he marries off his last daughter, his wife won’t be able to handle the housework on her own. He suggests he take a second wife so Muazzez can marry, but leaves the decision to Ayda and Muazzez. This is a wonderful moment in the movie, tense and meaningful for both the women and the audience. It’s also the film’s turning point into less comedy and more poignancy over life’s losses. However, in keeping with its Shakespearean tradition, the story has placed key props along the way—the green apples and the characters’ traits—that lead to a perfect, climatic ending. All’s well that ends well, with much life experienced along the way.

Cast: Yilmaz Erdoğan (Mayor), Farah Zeynep Abdullah (Muazzez), Songül Öden (Türkan), Sükran Ovali (Safiye), Seher Devrim Yakut (Ayda), Sükrü Özyildiz (Özgür), Fatih Artman (Hatip), Ersin Korkut (Sino).

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Rosso Istanbul

Dir. by Ferzan Ozpetek
At the17th Boston Turkish Film Festival
March 24 & 31, 2018
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Rosso Istanbul, directed by Ferzan Ozpetek and based on his 2013 novel by the same name, is a cinematic meditation on his hometown and on life. Reality is not as pretty as our dreams, the movie tells us. This review may have a spoiler.
Similar to Ozpetek’s Turkish baths movie of twenty years ago, Steam, this new film conveys the inner side of human lives, and both movies include endings with death. Both are also set in Istanbul but in different eras, Rosso Istanbul in today’s excess of wealth and lifestyle. Current music blends with traditional, evocative Eastern sounds and their feel of the elusive past, the score by Giuliano Taviani and Carmelo Travia.
The movie is slow because it reflects on individual life experience, from childhood relationships that impact psychology to successful careers that implode, like Deniz’s. Life inevitably deteriorates, but it’s a person’s accumulated memories that lead to later-life depression or despair.
Briefly, a London book editor, Orhan Sahin (Halit Ergenc), returns to his hometown, Istanbul, to help his old friend Deniz Soysal (Nejat Isler), a famous filmmaker, finish his autobiography. Orhan’s tragic face and the film’s other hints about his past eventually reveal the cause for his leaving Turkey twenty years before. Mostly silent, he speaks with his large blue eyes, and panning on all of the protagonists’ faces—their long looks at each otheris overdone. In real life friends don’t hold each other’s gazes for so long.
Deniz’s dissipated face and manic behavior juxtapose Orhan’s passivity. The stunning Neval (Tuba Buyukustun) forms a female addition to the relationships, which also include Deniz’s mentally tortured lover Jusef (Mehmet Gunsur). Neval appears less depressed than the three men, until she says: “But isn’t everyone unhappy?”
That line could be a subtitle for the movie: People are unhappy.
Deniz disappears on the first night of Orhan’s arrival and the rest of the movie takes on suspense about where he is, while the characters’ back stories slowly fill in. Jusef’s angry character is the best role, partly because his gaze never lingers too long on any of his adversaries.
Audiences may appreciate Rosso Istanbul’s study of life—human life—or they may ask: What was the point of this movie? And the ending might disappoint them—it’s ambiguous. Yet that ambiguity also offers a freedom to interpret meaning, which works well with this dark, meditative genre.
The Bosporus’s upscale Karakoy shoreline is the main setting of the film and plays a key role in the central characters’ lives and the movie’s ending. As the story winds up, Jusef tells Orhan that he and Deniz used to challenge each other to swim across the strait. Jusef succeeded many times, despite the dangerous currents, but Deniz never made it more than a few yards before turning back. The audience therefore assumes Deniz, drunk the last time anyone saw him, took on the Bosporus feeling omnipotent, or he committed suicide. Soon after, Jusef drowns in the waters, probably suicide. In the last scene, Orhan sheds his clothes, dives into the water, and begins swimming with a strong stroke. The screen goes black.
            Over the course of the movie, Orhan works through his past and frees himself from his dead condition of twenty years. But what is his future? Does he have a new beginning in Istanbul? Does he dive into the Bosphorus because life is dark and meaningless, or does he dive in feeling empowered to reach the other side, a symbol of his new strength? The viewer must decide an ending to this movie’s sad, but realistic depiction of life.