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Turkey call

From genius to genre at the Boston Turkish Film Festival
By PETER KEOUGH  |  March 28, 2007

KILLING THE SHADOWS: A comic duo who invent cement.

Turkey’s chances of getting into the European Union may be fading, but its role as a rising star in world cinema looks secure. Not since the late Yilmaz Güney won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1982 with Yol has a Turkish filmmaker made the kind of impression Nuri Bilge Ceylan did in 1999 with Clouds in May. And unlike his predecessor, Ceylan has made subsequent masterpieces that have added to his reputation and opened the way for the recognition of many of his talented colleagues.

Ceylan is represented in this year’s Boston Turkish Film Festival by his latest, the critically acclaimed CLIMATES (2006; April 1, 8 pm). Dour, reflexive, brilliant, slow-moving, this update of Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia|Voyage to Italy further confirms Ceylan as a major world director. But I suspect the average Turkish filmmgoer doesn’t line up to see his movies, not when the rabble-rousing action thriller Valley of the Wolves: Iraq packed them in last year. Like the American audiences who file in to see 300 or Shooter, the mass market in Turkey probably goes for genre flicks.

And that, for better and worse, is what most of this year’s festival offers — a look at what the Turkish cineplexes might be showing and a reflection, perhaps, of what’s on the collective mind of Turkish culture. The details and the trappings may differ from standard Middle American fare, but many of the themes remain familiar.

Take a period romantic comedy like the late veteran director Atif Yilmaz’s final film, BORROWED BRIDE (2005; April 8, 3:40 pm). In provincial Anatolia in the 1920s, in the early days of Turkey’s Westernization, 18-year-old Ali wants only to play with his “dolls” — his parents’ disdainful term for his puppets — and perform incognito for the traveling theater troupe in town. But his father the mayor has lined him up for a lucrative marriage with the daughter of a local entrepreneur. Mom convinces dad that the best way to get Ali interested in the upcoming union is by hiring a “borrowed bride,” a traditional surrogate who will introduce him into the bliss and the responsibilities of marriage.

Of course, local beauty Ermine (Nurgül Yesilçay, a Claudia Cardinale look-alike) proves more than they bargained for. Not only does her own fiancé, a violent thug serving time, pose potential complications, but Ermine herself has some modern ideas about a woman’s role. Much of Bride’s ribald comedy survives translation, and its emotional hooks and progressive themes come through in any language.

Retreating further into history, Ezel Akay’s KILLING THE SHADOWS (2006; April 6, 7:30 pm) also mixes broad humor with mild doses of politics and a glance at the political role of art and entertainment. It’s the 14th century, and Mongols, Ottomans, and Byzantines are wrangling bloodily over Turkey, but the town of Bursa shines as an example of multiculturalism and feminist empowerment. It’s a jolly ethnic and religious stew with an amazon sisterhood of warriors keeping the place secure. Enter Karagöz and Hacivat, based on a mythic comic duo and played by popular Turkish comedians Haluk Bilginer and Beyazit Öztürk, a lumpish nomad and a court jester thrown together by chance whose bickering catches on as a kind of street theater. Not with me, though; jokes about yogurt and turbans and butchering a beloved cow left me scratching my head. What makes them interesting through the film’s 138 minutes (they invent cement, among other diversions) is the increasing tension between their satire and the forbearance of the powers that be. Suffice to say Bursa does not remain a beacon of multiculturalism and feminist empowerment.

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