Saturday, March 27, 2010

BLISS (Mutluluk, 2007)

Here's a romantic drama from Turkey about rape and honor killing. Abdullah Oguz's film opens with shepherds discovering an unconscious girl on a beach. They wrap her in a rug and bring her to town, where it soon emerges, or it's assumed, that Meryem has been raped. That's a scandal that could hurt the prestige of the clan presided over by the Agha and local factory owner, Ali Riza. He summons Meryem's father and orders him to do the right thing for the extended family, which is to put Meryem to death to expunge the collective shame. But you can tell right off that Dad's a softy who won't have the heart to do it. Meryem's stepmom is probably a different story. She tosses Meryem a rope and suggests that the girl hang herself; God might be more forgiving that way. Meryem almost does it, but finally refuses, if only to spite the wicked stepmom. Fortunately for the Agha, there's a likely man for the job arriving in town: his own son Cemal, back from military service as a commando battling "terrorists," -- Kurds, presumably. Ali Riza tells his boy to take Meryem to Istanbul to do the deed away from local prying eyes. When Cemal balks briefly, the Agha reminds him that, as his dad, he's his commanding officer now. So it's off to the big city for a gravely mismatched couple.

When Meryem (Ozgu Namal) can't bump herself off, Cemal (Murat Han) is ordered to take her for a ride, but he sometimes isn't sure whom to bump off.

It'd be a short movie if Cemal could do the deed. When he can't goad her to jump to her death, he breaks down before he can pull the trigger on her. He clearly has issues of his own, at least with his dad (who we'll see has driven at least one other son away from him) if not with his wartime experiences. In any event, neither he nor Meryem can go back now, so they begin a picturesque picaresque adventure that takes them to a fishery and its adjoining shack, then to work as mate and cook on a college professor's sailboat. Cemal doesn't want Irfan the professor (Talat Bulut) to know their real identities and relationship, and he grows jealous as Irfan, who we see served with divorce papers in one scene, gives Meryem presents and tries to teach the backward girl about the wider world. Meanwhile, Ali Riza assumes the worst -- that Meryem hasn't been killed -- when Cemal doesn't come home, so he hits the trail to track them both down. Will Cemal's jealousy make the Agha's effort redundant?

Mutluluk is based on a novel, but cinematically it reminded me of some semi-waterborne tough-love stories like Sunrise and L'Atalante. It's distinguished by lovely land and seascape cinematography by Mirsad Herovic, who crafts pastoral images of almost archaic quality. The story may be a tough sell as a romance, in America at least, because of Cemal's occasional thuggishness. He's a man who, when provoked, will call Meryem a "whore" and sometimes slap her, but he's our hero, and as Irfan sees it, Cemal is only lashing out because he won't admit that he's in love with Meryem. Irfan is almost too good to be true in his disinterested benevolence, despite the director's attempt to incite suspicion with the divorce subplot. Nearly strangled by Cemal at one point, he drinks and has a heart-to-heart with him shortly afterward. I suppose it's part of the romantic tradition to have a benevolent eccentric around to steer the leads into each other's arms.

It's not until more than halfway through the film that we realize that there's a mystery to be solved. Meryem has constantly refused to name whoever raped her, and she sometimes insists that nothing actually happened. She may be keeping silent on purpose, but it seems more likely that she'd repressed the memory. In any event, the identity of the culprit seems irrelevant to the story for some time, since the rape dooms Meryem no matter whodunit. On the boat, however, Irfan throws her some rope, intending to teach her to tie a special knot, but it sparks a flashback to her near-hanging, and that leads to the first of several fragmentary scenes from her rape. Once we notice that the rapist's identity is being withheld, we know a big revelation is in store that is actually pretty predictable. And once that anticipation sinks in, you notice how a certain unconscious cultural prejudice may have kept you from anticipating it earlier, if you're a western viewer. Watching a film by and about a Muslim country, you may assume that honor killing is just what's done, especially in a backwater like Meryem's town. Scandalized by the concept, the issue of who raped Meryem may become irrelevant for you until Oguz gradually brings it back to the forefront. There may be a lesson in this film. When we see deplorable things in the Muslim world, we're tempted to blame them on Islam or Islamic culture in a way that makes the whole culture collectively guilty, but Bliss refutes that assumption by showing how religion or tradition can be exploited for pure self-interest. The best thing about the lesson is that Oguz doesn't make a lesson of it. It isn't a point that anyone has to make explicitly, but it's one that makes this sometimes-melodramatic story worthwhile.

Here's a trailer with English subtitles uploaded by the American DVD distributor, firstrunfeaturesnyc:

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