by Damon Smith, Globe Correspondent

Sunday - April 13, 2003

Aside from news related to war in Iraq, we don't customarily hear much about Turkey, a country where the traditional and the secular live side by side in a sometimes uneasy alliance. After many years of neglect, however, Turkish cinema is finally getting the attention it deserves from critics and festival organizers.

One of the main reasons for the upsurge of interest in Turkeys art cinema is Zeki Demirkubuz, an intense young auteur who created a minor buzz last year when two of his films screened at Cannes. Given his hellish past as a political prisoner, it's no surprise that Demirkubuz favors silent, dark interiors; harsh existential themes; and shots of his actors gazing emptily through open doorways and windows, as if from chambers of solitude.

Those artistic inclinations are evident in a pair of films, Fate (Friday, 7:30 p.m.); and Confession (Saturday, 1 p.m.), that are trude standouts in this series. The first two installments in a trilogy Demirkubuz has dubbed Tales About Darkness, both show a director with a stripped-down almost Beckettian sensibility who continuously explores themes that, to put it kindly, do not promise much in the way of box-office success, even if they will intrigue many viewers.

In Fate, a sly adaptation of Albert Camus's The Stranger, Demirkubuz transforms the antihero Meursault into a hollow-eyed, expressionless clerk named Musa, for whom life is an absurdity. After his mother dies suddenly, Musa appears to be unfazed; his routine drinking coffee, working at the customs office remains the same. Through sheer indifference (It doesn't matter is his stock response), he becomes involved in a neighbors deadly scheme and even agrees to marry his co-worker Sinem, though he cares nothing for her. Later he takes the rap for the murder of his bosss family, giving Demirkubuz an opportunity to explore questions of fate, freedom, and morality.

Similarly paced and tonally identical is Confession, a haunting drama of emotional anguish that takes up themes of pride, shame, revulsion, infidelity, and male-female power dynamics. Harun suspects that his wife, Nilgun, is having an affair. He waits for her at home, the TV blaring senseless news, the rings under his eyes getting heavier. He eavesdrops on her and traces a call to her lovers hotel room. When he finally confronts her, she admits to wanting a separation, but nothing more. Harun explodes imploring, threatening, antagonizing her grinding hope like bits of glass underfoot. What follows is a cycle of betrayal, confession, betrayal that finally ends, without resolution, in a solemn portrait of isolation. 

One bittersweet antidote to such agonized hopelessness is Baris Pirhasan's Summer Love (Wednesday, 8 p.m.) a coming-of-age tale that isn't far removed from 70s summer-crush flicks like Little Darlings. Confronted with failing grades in school, 13-year-old Esma is sent to live with relatives in the southeastern village of Malatya. Once there, she's delighted to learn that her favorite aunt, Saliha Teyze, is also a visitor, ostensibly grieving the loss of her husband. Making her exile even sweeter is the presence of Huseyin, a sable-haired hunk Esma pines for and innocently fantasizes about.But Esma's devotion to her aunt and the young man she fancies will be put to the test. Saliha who bucked an arranged marriage years ago is involved in a land dispute with her extended family, and Esma must eventually face the heartbreaking realities about why her aunt has come to the village. Focusing on the loving, empathetic relationship between the two female outsiders, Pirhasan does an excellent job of capturing teen vulnerability and idealized love. His lush images of Turkeys gold-hued rural landscape as well as his incisive portrait of family dynamics in a small village are also part of the film's irresistible charm.

Taking us far from this idyllic country setting into Central Europe is My Mother (Thursday, 8 p.m.), a semi-autobiographical film by Buket Alakus. Set in Germany, the story concerns a Turkish cleaning lady who sets out to rescue her son, Deniz, from the clutches of addiction. Aided by her best friends Didi, a soul-singing voodoo maven, and Rita, a chain-smoking hard-luck case the headstrong Anam scours the seediest districts of Hamburg and winds up nursing a troubled young acquaintance of her son.

The search for Deniz also becomes a journey of self-discovery for Anam (the formidable Nursel Kose) as she breaks with Muslim tradition to realize her budding sense of independence. She tells off her two-timing husband, quits her job, and perhaps most symbolic learns to drive. Like Florence Nightingale in a Turkish version of Thelma & Louise, Anam is fun to watch as she inhabits the roles of mother, bosom buddy, and gun-toting savior. As much a sympathetic portrait of working-class immigrant life as it is a feminist valentine from son to mother, Alakus's film deftly blends serious drama and lighthearted comedy to diverting effect.

Sex, lies, and videotape might be the name of a well-known American indie film, but it would also make an appropriate title for 9 (April 25, 8 p.m.), a fast-paced thriller by newcomer Umit Unal that was Turkey's official entry in the 2003 Oscars. Shot and edited on digital video, the film unfortunately has the look and feel of a slick television commercial, but if you can get beyond the herky-jerky cuts and nauseating zoom shots, its well worth checking out this ingenious whodunit.

Set entirely in a dimly lit interrogation room where five suspects are being questioned in the slaying of a young Jewish drifter, Unal's narrative cleverly builds tension by splicing together their videotaped testimonies. The camera jumps feverishly in real time between each of the suspects a shopkeeper, a photographer, a conservative matriarch, a macho butcher, and a sagelike elder known as The American as they react to the unseen policemen's questions, until it becomes apparent that no one is telling the whole truth. And thats when things get interesting.

What's most impressive about the unconventional structure of 9 is the way Unal creates drama between characters who are never in the same room together. Not only do they baldly accuse one another when they feel the light of suspicion swinging in their direction, they also have a few qualms about revealing one another's dirtiest secrets. What we end up with is more than a murder mystery: We also get an intriguing look at the social dynamics of a tiny Istanbul enclave, and, in the end, a blunt criticism of crooked justice. Add to that intense performances from the entire cast, and 9 is a film to recommend.