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Autumn of the patriarchs

The Boston Turkish Film Festival at the MFA
By PETER KEOUGH  |  March 24, 2008

080328_turkey-main
A MAN’S FEAR OF GOD Özer Kiziltan evokes Robert Bresson in this near-masterpiece.

The Seventh Annual Boston Turkish Film Festival | Museum of Fine Arts: March 27–April 6
Maybe one shouldn’t judge a country by its movies. What if the US were to be evaluated by the standards of the top 10 films at the box office, by the likes of Horton Hears a Who!, 10,000 B.C., and Never Back Down? Surely our image in the world would suffer. Nonetheless, after following the MFA’s Turkish Film Festival for the last seven years, I find this year’s selection suggestive of a nation that has become more inward and regressive.

In a good way, perhaps. The films seem to reflect Turkey’s ongoing struggle to westernize versus the draw of its more fundamentalist traditions. They dramatize the conflict between the secular sophistication of urban society and the traditional rigidity of the rural areas. As the country rocks in inner turmoil — electing an Islamic party to rule for the first time in decades, debating human rights, pondering inclusion in the European Union, bleeding from a perpetual Kurdish uprising — popular cinema provides a forum where such troubles can be acted out. Such dissonance has also made for some of the more unusual and accomplished Turkish films in a while, among them one near-masterpiece that evokes Robert Bresson in its unblinking contemplation of rigorous piety.

Many of this year’s entries take place in isolated rustic enclaves rather than in the bustling environs of Istanbul. Abdullah Oguz’s BLISS (2007; March 29 at 2:45 pm) is set in a village not far removed from the Middle Ages. It opens with stunning shots of the shores of the Sea of Marmara; they are bleak and beautiful, troubled only by passing herds of sheep or, in this case, the twisted body of elfin Meryem (Özgü Namal, who bears an unnerving resemblance to Ellen Page).

Raped and left for dead, Meryem is rescued but remains silent as to her attacker. She doesn’t get much sympathy from the folks at home — her stepmother is a tormenting harpy and her father a spineless toady who doesn’t quibble when the ruling agha demands that Meryem be “taken care of” to protect the “purity” of the community. The agha’s pissed-off son, Cemal (Murat Han), has just returned from the army, where he served as a commando killing terrorists. His dad gives him an automatic pistol and two tickets to Istanbul, where he can eliminate Meryem in the anonymity of the big city.

As you might expect, Cemal can’t bring himself to do the deed, and the two shuffle off, knowing full well that the agha will be looking for them and that the conventions of such storytelling demand they fall in love. Meanwhile, in what seems another movie — one by a poor imitator of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, perhaps — a foppish professor (Talat Bulut) abandons his decadent city life and his rich, uppity wife and jumps on his yacht to sail the Sea of Marmara. Might Professor Irfan and Cemal and Meryem meet, their city and country ways complementing each other and showing the way to a new Turkey? Perhaps. More important, though, is that the villain in the piece is traditional patriarchal society and its enabling wives.

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