I admit it.  I’ve been on a bender lately reading about Turkey and watching movies made there, or by Turks in Europe. It’s all in preparation for a three week visit coming up.  Though it turns out that much of what I am seeing and  learning I would never  likely see there anyway.

Topkapi, the 1964 movie with Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell and Peter Ustinov, provides a preview of many spots around Istanbul, particularly the Topkapi Palace –though we won’t be able to see the roof-tops at a dead run in person.  Plenty of action films, including last year’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and 1963’s From Russia With Love can give the cheap thrill of recognizing a filmed scene when there, or vice versa.

But a movie like  Takva: A Man’s Fear of God, or Bal  takes us to where we could never go.  We come away richer from viewing it,  even if we never go to Turkey.  A visit there, confined to the showcase items of the nation and not to the alleys and mosques and forests of the movies, much less the people, will  be enriched by a sense of what is going on behind-the-scenes, what Turks might know that we wouldn’t even know that we don’t know.

Takva: A Man’s Fear of God is a unlike anything you’ve ever seen, in a film or in the world. Released in 2006, directed by Özer Kiziltan, who seems to have mostly done TV serials,  Takva is at its simplest a story about a very pious, solitary and poor man, Muharrem [Erkan Can],  who is elevated into the world, by his own Sheik [Meray Ülgen],  and whose pieties do not suffice against the temptations he finds there.   Nowhere will you see Sufi Muslim prayer practices and the inner workings of  a mosque grouped around a revered Imam, as here, nor the activities of a small tradesman in Istanbul — yet a big man in the eyes of Muharrem; nor a pious Muslim fighting the devils of money and eroticism, or the competing claims of mercy to the poor and supporting the Mosque and its school with their rent payments

Many things catch our attention:  the  sad, movingly expressive face of a middle aged man performing his ablutions and saying his evening prayers in a very sparse urban apartment; the Sheik of the mosque telling his assistant, Rauf [Güven Kiraç] that Muharrem has been very devout and will do fine in the job he wants him to do; the  assistant daring to respond that Muharrem is not smart enough; the Sheik’s careful answer that he will use your brains, his good heart will be all that he needs.   “He will realize that it his being ordinary that makes him extraordinary.” Muharrem’s woeful response, and later fervent prayers to Allah, that he not disappoint.

There are fine shots in a beautiful but not luxurious mosque.  The sound track and shots of men in prayer, with energetic call and response, a  quite wonderful davening with hand drums and chanting    The camera work is excellent, hand-held and moving among the faithful, showing the ecstatic, Sufi ceremony.

Suddenly, the scene cuts to a man making love to a woman, not tenderly but outrageous, obscene.  It is Muharrem.  She is panting in response.  He wakes up shocked.  “God  forgive me my sins!” he whispers desperately, finding the remains of his wet dream.   Thus, the first temptation.

Muharrem’s  elevation by the Sheik increases his status with Ali, his long-time patron and employer, and with those around him.  Clothes, it seems, do make the man.  As he appears in fine jackets, carrying his rent-collection brief case,  responding to calls on his new cell-phone, people turn to him as to others with power.  Money is exchanged.  Over billing is possible, and done.  Those paying see it as a kind of  guarantee of notice from him;  Ali, a businessman, is happy to increase his profit.  Muharrem is consumed –with shame, and as the title goes, “Fear of God.”  His dreams begin to include money floating down on the women he finds there, beneath him. The second temptation.  When a taste of alcohol is poured into a  bared naval, he bends and sips.  The third temptation.

With each day, the nightmares increase.  He has guilt flashes on his rounds, beggars reaching out to him, to whom he cannot respond.  His Sheik has pointed out that if money is not collected from the poor, the services of the brotherhood to those poor, cannot be carried out.  His prayers to Allah are failing him.  He becomes unhinged by his position, berating others for failings in respect and prayer that he himself is suffering.

The alcohol that really inflames his mind is that the Sheik wants Muharrem to marry his beautiful daughter, Hacer [Öznur Kula].  Though he declines, almost in terror,  she begins to appear in his dreams.  Finally, at the end of his tether he pursues her, barely recognizing who she is, through rain drenched streets, to stand before the Mosque doors  defending  them from her sexualized presence.

The interpretation of his actions, and the “cure” administered by the brotherhood, attributing his mad behavior to a multi stage journey towards Allah and back to the world is both strange and wonderful.

There is so much to take in, I’ve watched the film a couple of times.  The marvelous signs of respect, and good-manners between ordinary people, the automatic  As-Salāmu `alayka with the hand over the heart on meeting someone, and the equally automatic response Wa `alayk(…) s-salām.  The humble reply to any compliment that the act or behavior is only possible with God’s help. Not to mention the back streets of Istanbul and the great modern department stores, where Muharrem first encounters the scantily clad mannequins that bewitch his mind.  All the details that make another culture and experience come alive in our own minds.

It’s worth noting that  Fatih Akin, a German-Turk director, whose own movies I’ve enjoyed [and here,]  co-produced Takva; also that a poem from Nazim Hikmet, Turkey’s best known modern poet, and better known as a communist than a Sufi, ends the film.

Many signs have come to pass
and the time is nigh
Halal has turned haraam
and haraam has turned halal
We are racing
against ourselves, my dear
And shall either take life
to the dead stars
Or let death descend
upon our world.

*

Bal, (2010) which means honey, is a very quiet, and for most of us, sad story of a honey harvester and his young son, in wooded north-eastern Turkey in the district of   Çamlıhemşi . The opening shot is a stunning, static shot of a forest, shimmering in green, with slender white (birch?) trunks framing the scene.  Into it walk, very slowly, a man and his donkey, returning to gather the honey from the hives he had planted high in the trees a year earlier.  Long after you grow hazy on the story in Bal, you will remember the mountains, rivers and trees of the area.

Erdal Besikçioglu plays the father, Yakup.  He, like is son, and wife, indeed like the landscape itself, is the strong, silent type.  He clearly loves young Yusuf (Bora Altas), though he is not demonstrative in ways familiar to EuroMerican movie goers.  But he knows to respond to his son’s silence with whispered secrets that catch his attention. The mother Sehra (Tülin Özen) is harder to understand.  She too is silent much of the time, and we would say, frankly, depressed.  Her lack of touching her sweet boy is noticeable.  When she finally kisses him on the head it comes as a relief, though possibly reinforces our judgement.

Yusuf walks, in his one pair of shoes, to a one-room school house, shared with boys and girls of roughly his age.  The scenes we see are primarily of reading lessons, which for all his trying Yusuf does not do very well at.  It’s a bit painful to watch.  The teacher, a man, while maintaining  strict order in the class with his quiet, observant pacing, is not unkind.  He finally awards Yusuf the coveted red badge of achievement, to a round of applause by his classmates, even though his reading has not progressed much.

What really interests Yusuf is his father and the bee-keeping.  Like rural children around the world, he is attentive  to what his father is doing, and helps him, tying the smokers onto rope for his father to pull up to the hive, learning the names of the flowers, and which attract bees.  It might be an idyllic life, except the bees are disappearing.  Colony collapse disorder doesn’t appear in the translated sub-titles, but it seems that is what is going on.  One scene has Yakup shaking down handsfull of bee-corpses into Yusuf’s hand.  Yakup has to range wider looking for a harvest, and one day he does not come home.

The fourth character in the film is a marvelous hawk, tamed and used somehow by the family.  As the neighbors gather to share condolences with the mother, Yusuf sees the hawk darting through the woods, and takes off in mad pursuit of it, as though it will lead him to his father, not dead as the adults have declared.  The last shot is of the tired little boy, held in the long fingered roots of a tree, deep in the forest.  He is alone.

Beautiful and in many ways touching, Bal is somewhat of an enigma.  The shots are uniformly static and long, mostly beautiful, even saturated with beauty.  The interiors, too, are rich in color, from the wooden walls, to the carpets and cloth.  Perhaps too rich. This is, we take it, a poor family.  Yet the home is one any of us, in the wealthy west, would move into in a moment.   This way of making a movie, lingering and then some more,  makes it very slow.  It is as slow as it is quiet, which could be a strength.  Nowhere to turn our eyes, no scene cutting into it, we are allowed the time to take in the details — or, to drift off, bored.

One set of scenes breaks out of the somber tones and sounds.  A weekend fair, as it were.  Lots of people from all over the area, selling goods and foods, and a fine, hopping line-dance with men and women holding hands a long sinuous rows.

The mother’s behavior is particularly imponderable.  She is aware of her son’s troubles in school; she asks her husband what they can do for him.  They send him to an Imam to be be prayed over.  Yet not much is done,  as my wife would call it, in the cheerfulness department.  Children seem to have born-with-it happiness that takes many years to leak out of them;  Yusuf doesn’t have it, and his adults don’t know to uncover it.  They have no remembrance of it in their own lives, perhaps.  It is also worth noting is that Yusuf is an only child, as is his best friend. Strange, it occurs to us, the viewer.

I always think it is amazing when watching movies with long sequences of children acting, to remember that what we are seeing is, in fact, acting.  That a child like Bora Atlas can let his face move in ways that convey sadness, confusion, curiosity, likely having been asked to do it several times, is a wonder.  Even when as with Bal, one wishes for a bit of a faster pace, to be taken into the small world he inhabits is something to sit still for.

The director, Semih Kaplanoglu, is a well known film maker in Turkey.  Bal is the third of what is called his Yusuf trilogy, the first two being Egg (2007) and Milk (2008.)  Angel’s Fall, 2005, preceded them all and I have to say, the extremely slow static shots that had some power in  Bal made Angel’s Fall almost unwatchable — that and a very underlit, dark reproduction.  Scene after scene was so contrasty, that dark clothes were just black blobs below faces with a high-lit cheek, or nose.  Apparently a story is being told but if so it’s impossible to discern.  One worth passing up.