Thursday, August 6, 2009

BLISS, a primer on Turkish "honor" killing, begins its theatrical run in NYC

It's startling how similar is the image and idea of the opening moments of the new Turkish film BLISS (Mutluluk) to the image that sets the tone and plot in motion from last year's award-winning Italian film The Girl by the Lake (now available On-Demand via IFC). Both show a young woman's body at a lakeside. Though, in the Ital-
ian version, the body is nude and dead, in the Turkish rendition, she's alive and clothed, though it soon becomes apparent that it would be better for everyone concerned (except the girl herself) were she dead. The young woman, you see, has been raped, and in this mountain village where tradition trumps intelligence and humanity, she is now expected to kill herself for the "honor" of her family.

Bliss, supposedly the most acclaimed Turkish film of the past decade (in its homeland, I suspect: on the international festival circuit, I believe the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan have attained a somewhat higher ranking), is indeed a wrenching experience for at least some of its running time. As the first movie to tackle this theme of "honor" killing, it does a service in bringing to light -- not just internationally but on its home front, too -- the fact that this stupid, horrific and misogynistic practice is still going on.

As to the merits of the film itself, there are plenty, even if, as it heads into the home stretch, things become a bit too easy and programmatic. (The movie is a melodrama, albeit a good example of this genre.) The build-up, however, is splendid, and the performances do the film full justice. Beginning as what looks like a mystery, then morphing into a lunatic "revenge" thriller and from there into a kind of road movie on a boat, what holds Bliss together is its consistent tone. Rather than offering us anything pulse-pounding, co-writer/director Abdullah Oguz (from a novel by Zülfü Livaneli) tends more toward the quiet, thoughtful and restrained. The performances of his three leads adhere to this plan, as well.

As Meryem, the young woman at the center of the storm, Özgü Namal (shown in the photos above) is quite good. It helps that she appears so beautiful and vulnerable; her reactions to life when she leaves the mountain village seem both enchanting and believable. As the cousin, Cemal, assigned to "take care" of the girl, Murat Han (shown below) is remarkable in this, his film debut. Playing a young man just out of the military who has returned to his village, the actor manages to make his struggle against barbarism palpable and moving, never more so than when he must somehow learn to trust. As the outsider who befriends the pair, Talat Bulut (above, left) brings the right combination of wisdom and easy charm to his role (This is the role Topol would have taken, were the film made a few decades ago -- out of Hollywood.)

As I say, the movie's finale seems a bit too easy, though it is certainly something viewers, as well as the main characters, have been longing for. Aside from the absolutely gorgeous scenery (which should bring a lot tourists to Turkey), what may remain with you, and rightly so, is the shocking sense of women seen as little better than chattel in the country's remote areas. The movie's real theme is change -- and how to accommodate it -- reflected in the tribulations of all three leading characters, but especially in face, body and soul of Cemal, the ex-soldier. Doing the right thing has rarely seemed so difficult. Or rewarding.

Bliss -- distributed by First Run Features -- opens Friday, August 7, in New York City at the Cinema Village, with openings in various cities scheduled throughout the rest of the summer and fall. Additional playdates around the country can be found here.

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