“The bride is like a child who has found herself in a new body overnight. Different parts of her have been stained red, white, and gold; she bears all the carnal colors and signs — but what to do with them?”
The current run of Turkish films screening at international festivals has several distinguishing features. Pelin Esmer’s Watchtower, Ali Aydin’s Mold, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and Reis Çelik’s Night of Silence all have perfectly timed, surprise endings that give the works the feeling of an accomplished short story. However, time passes slowly before the sudden cut-off of the finale. A tiny figure — only several pixels wide — inches across a huge landscape, and there is nothing to do but wait until it stops moving. The camera stays fixed while people walk in and out of the frame, with no powers of zoom or investigation. There is an uneasy relationship between the characters and their environment. A setting may blur as a man walks out of it, only to have him re-emerge sharply in the foreground. We often cut between a “timeless” panorama and a nervous, self-conscious face that exists very much in the now.
Most importantly, silence rules. In the first three films, chatterers are seen as weak and squirmy; conversation is euphemistic at best. Voices become unmoored from bodies, as if the speakers had become bored with their own words. Better to be stoic and superior, like the heroes of Mold and Watchtower, who have the old-school, literary jobs of railroad inspector and sentry. The protagonists of these two films are single men with obsessive minds, made saintly by the performance of one ritual. There seems to be the conviction that silence is the mood of great novels, voices are for small talk.
The stillness of these films has a particular quality: it is a mood waiting to be pierced by ugly and unbelievable violence. The men have heavy bodies and bull heads: deep eye sockets, ridged foreheads, and big moustaches that make them seem even more taciturn. Their bodies — like all material reality in these films — look powerful, yet dumb and inert.
Why do these prize-winning films have so many similarities? Do their common elements represent a convergence of ideas, or are they an attempt to capitalize on the success of Ceylan, the way that producers in Thailand and China are now crafting the next Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Jia Zhangke? Of the four, Mold is the closest to a clichéd art film; it is molasses-slow (literally featuring dripping sounds in the background) and the use of long takes seems turgid rather than charged. Given that this kind of minimalist cinema is now ubiquitous, the highlights of this year’s Melbourne Turkish Film Festival were films that managed to transcend these effects: the conventionally structured but intriguing Watchtower and the stunning Night of Silence.
Watchtower deals with the relationship between a man in a tower and a woman in a basement — a setup that recalls Bertolucci’s Besieged (1998), another film featuring an upstairs/downstairs relationship with people communicating through signals and doors. As in Besieged, the characters of Watchtower receive strange, coded images of each other by virtue of their locations in the house. The man at the top would seem to be in the greater position of power, but his perspective is associated with the gaze of the mountain itself: a solitary, wandering eye with many vantage points, which glimpses bodies at odd moments. The dynamic between the eye-obsessed man and the pregnant woman might be predictable, but it is invigorated when nature comes storming back into action: tearing green shots of the wilderness come powering behind her as she pursues him into the woods.
Night of Silence begins with what might seem to be a very literal point of view. The audience is placed in the position of a very young bride being taken to meet her elderly groom. We peek through her red veil and look down at the painted toes that seem to belong to an older woman. We gaze at the numb hands and their heavy bracelets as if they were bits of someone else. The bride is like a child who has found herself in a new body overnight. Different parts of her have been stained red, white, and gold; she bears all the carnal colors and signs — but what to do with them?
From the start, Night of Silence is novelistic in its sense of closeness and detail. It feels as if the textures of the night are being described to us: the plasticky boiled sweets, the red-spangled veil, the polyester wedding dress, and the silver shoes — if only they could click her back home. As in a fairytale, the princess sits in a locked room, waiting to meet the beast she has been promised to. At first, things seem better than expected: the groom (Ilyas Salman) is willing to play the doting ogre, winning her over with his gentleness despite his appearance. But this tale has potentially frightening consequences, as we fear that more than charm will be used to subdue the bride. Will violence and sex enter the equation?
The dynamic between the girl and the man shifts; sometimes he behaves like an indulgent grandfather with a child, then he turns impatient and demands to be satisfied. The groom’s swollen, mashed-up face might be touching in a gentle man, but it would be terrifying in an openly sexual one.
In negotiating their wedding night, the two discuss their resemblance to mythological characters. They trace over carved figures in a wooden panel that contains little mirrors, as if their faces were interchangeable parts of a legend. This is where the film approaches greatness: when a contemporary story turns multidimensional in its allusions to mythology and a broader political context. The characters use embroidered screens and murals to explain their motivations in the context of tradition. As in Orhan Pamuk’s great novel My Name Is Red, there is the constant switch between a life-size story and a miniaturist view of history. At times, we view the bride and groom as if they were tiny figures in a cameo, but then the picture suddenly expands to include larger questions of honor-killing and arranged marriage. The film continually changes in implications and suggestiveness.
The man tries to convince the girl that their coming together is part of a world picture, and that their dreams spring from a common symbolism. He conjures imagery both beautiful and threatening: the love story of a woman who is half-snake. The girl turns the tables by switching the game to two dimensions; she weaves a puzzle out of red wool and invites him to solve it, with the winner taking all.
Each character must try to spin events their way; he recites his version of the fables and how things have always been, while it is her job to create a series of denials and problems. Stories are a means to stave off or encourage sex, and the players are as wily as Scheherazade, generating plots as if their lives depended on it. Whoever holds out until dawn wins. But although the man tries to invade the girl’s imagination on a subliminal level, the influence goes both ways. Dozing off, he has a quasi-feminist dream in which he is the one struggling beneath the veil; he is caught up in a red vortex that looks like a spiral snake, and presented to a forbidding older bride.
For him, the associations are all tangled. Is the snake-woman code for male sexuality or a monstrous female? In the dream, the red threads of the veil become a game of feminine wiles. Embracing a woman involves dodging a series of traps: there are so many bracelets, charms, and snares to get past. In the groom’s mind, he is just as much a puppet of convention as the girl.
Despite its title, this film is full of conversation and imagery — even if talk is only used to defer action. Narrative is a game of desire: designed not only to sweeten and intensify longing but to deaden it, ruin it beyond repair. With its images of sexual disgust — women who turn out to be half-snake or half-crone — set within a “realistic” story, Night of Silence combines the modern and the mythological in a remarkably fused way. It is both a political film and a fairytale with the dread of sex in it.
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Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Nalan Cebeci, the programmer of the Melbourne Turkish Film Festival, who continues to bring a superb range of Turkish cinema to Australian audiences: http://www.acinematicdelight.com/