East Meets Best
By Peter Keough
Boston Phoenix    April 1-7, 2005

YOL: this 1982 film shared the Palme d'Or and put Turkish cinema on the map.

"The Fourth Boston Turkish Film Festival"
At the Museum of Fine Arts April 1 through 10.

For most American filmgoers, Turks are the bad guys in Lawrence of Arabia and Midnight Express. Whereas the distinctive styles and recognized auteurs of China and Iran have brought those countries fame, Turkish cinema has not made much of an impression. Neither Europe nor Asia, East nor West, and with a reputation for oppressive authority, Turkey is a blur on the world screen despite its wealth of talent and long cinematic tradition.

There have been exceptions, two of which are included among "The Ten Best Turkish Films of All Time," as chosen by the Ankara Cinema Association, that make up this year’s Turkish Film Festival at the Museum of Fine Arts. Scripted by Yilmaz Güney and directed by Serif Gören, Yol (1982; April 10 at 1 p.m.) is the brutal epic of five prisoners who are given leave and discover that the outside world is an even more insidious prison. It shared the Palme d’Or at Cannes with Costa-Gavras’s Missing and became a sensation, the first worldwide recognition of Güney and the rigorous neo-realism with which he’d transformed Turkish films, if not Turkish society.

More recently, Nuri Bilge Ceylan has made a similar splash, establishing himself as a world-class filmmaker with his Distant (2003; April 10 at 3:15 p.m.), which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. It put him in the ranks of Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami, whose self-reflexivity and existential themes Ceylan shares. With its near-solipsistic introspection, this psychodrama of two alienated cousins co-existing in an Istanbul apartment is the antithesis of Yol’s indignant activism.

To judge from the other selections here, the dichotomy between outer and inner gaze defines Turkish cinema. Characters are consumed either by the meaning of it all or by the need to make money. In the latter category is Güney’s Hope (1970; screens April 8 at 6 p.m.), whose portrait of social injustice is much more modest than Yol’s but also more harrowing and mysterious. Cabbar (Güney), the driver of a broken-down hackney carriage, buys lottery tickets in a desperate attempt to win enough money to support his wife, his mother, and his five children. But his luck just gets worse. A careless driver kills his horse, and he joins a half-mad friend and a disreputable fortune teller in a treasure hunt. Güney acknowledges his debt to Vittorio de Sica’s Ladri di biciclette/The Bicycle Thief with a whimsical allusion, but the film’s power and vision are all his own. Especially in the second half, when the Sisyphean search for buried gold begins, he transcends mere realism with Ingmar Bergman–like images of madness, loss and tragedy.

Madness is a given from the start in Ömer Kavur’s Motherland Hotel (1986; April 8 at 8 p.m.): when Zebercet (Joseph Goebbels look-alike Macit Koper), manager of the title establishment, introduces himself and starts telling the story of his neurotic life, comparisons with Norman Bates and Kafka’s Joseph K. are inevitable. His daily routine, announced by title cards giving the day of the week, breaks down when a young woman takes a room and then leaves after a week. Zebercet grows obsessed with her. He sleeps in her vacated room. He seems to have a moustache; he shaves it off; it reappears. Events occur that are disconnected, trivial, and inexplicable. He abuses the housekeeper and her cat. Something terrible, irrational, and surreal seems certain to take place, and Kavur’s meticulously grim compositions and Koper’s rodent-like performance draw you into a private hell that is suffocating and ineluctable.

It’s a relief to check into the more generic tragi-comedy of Yavuz Turgul’s Muhsin Bey (1987; April 2 at 1 p.m.). The title impresario is a music agent of the old school, courting classical folk singers and spurning the new-fangled fads of "arabesque" singing. Of course, he’s going broke. Hope arrives not as a lottery ticket or buried treasure but as a roly-poly kid from the sticks, Ali, the nephew of an old army acquaintance whose feet smelled so bad they knocked his unit out. (Much of the comedy is like that.) Ali wants to be a star. And Muhsin, knowing it’s his last chance, grudgingly takes him on. As the film hews more to the tragic than the comic, it sharpens in poignancy. Relaxed and densely detailed in its 145 minutes, Muhsin Bey, like this series, is a rich tour of Turkey, inside and out.