As one interpretation of Pandora’s Box goes, what remains inside after all the evils are set free — hope– is not redemptive at all, but the worst gift that cruel gods can bestow.  So it may seem with the 1990 Swiss-Turkish movie, and winner of the 1990 Oscar for best foreign film,  Journey of Hope.

Somewhere in south-east Turkey, probably in the 1980s, a small Kurdish-Turk farmer, and father of seven, begins to hope for better things.  Although in the beautiful cinematography of Elemér Ragályi rural life looks pretty good, even bucolic, as the kids play with the goats and shepherds drive flocks over rolling hills it apparently isn’t so for Haydar Sener [Necmettin Çobanoglu], especially when he gets a postcard from a cousin who has just arrived in Switzerland.  When one of Haydar’s children reads the words “it’s a paradise here,” his mind is made up.

It takes a lot of argument and some male strong-arming to convince his more sober wife Meryem [Nur Sürer — both well known actors in Turkey], who is aghast at his idea.  Leave the children?!  He assures her that the two oldest — just on the cusp of puberty– will do fine with the younger ones, especially with their grandparents  thereto help. She eventually succumbs, pulls back, and then agrees again.  At the suggestion of the nicely played grandfather [Selahattin Firat] they decide at the last minute to take the most mischievous of their children with them, a six year old Mehmet Ali [Emin Sivas.]

We know right away, as does Myriam, that the “coyotes” are not to be trusted.  Money is handed over with no guarantee but a promise and a handshake. Just the right combination of concern and business is shown so that everything seems up and up.  As they leave the office Haydar is advised to take even more money.  He has sold all his livestock just to get this far; he goes back and sells his small piece of land.  The three set off on a bus to Istanbul where they expect  to catch a boat which is to get them to Italy.  However, Mehmet Ali presents a problem — or perhaps is used as the excuse by the next set of coyotes.  Instead of having  passage on the ship, they are bundled into a container which is then lifted onto the exposed deck.  We’ve heard too much about starvation in such attempts in recent years to think well of this idea.

In the first instance of “kindness from strangers, cruelty from countrymen,” which the director seems to have in his mind,  they are found by a kindly Italian sailor, released and hidden in his room.  When the ship docks in Naples he hustles up a truck driver willing to get them to Milan, where they are to meet another homeboy contact. Off they go, Mehmet Ali charming everyone, and especially the driver who, it turns out, is Swiss and going home.  His attempt to get them across the border with him fails but he sends them back to Milan with money from his own pocket.

The film sags a bit in this middle section.  It seems too happy, too much of a picnic outing aided by kindhearted folks,  particularly since the warning music in the score appears from time to time to alarm us.  Back in the hands of their countrymen in Milan things begin to get worse.  Along with a dozen others they are piled into a van and head up the foothills towards the Swiss border.  Finally they reach a boarded up work-camp and get the real news.  They are to walk across the mountains, with the help of a guide, where they will be met on the other side. The guide, an experienced older man, smells bad weather coming in and refuses to go.  He is beaten senseless by the two coyotes.  The migrants are told to walk –‘it’s simple, just take the fork to the left when you get there’– or be left there alone.

Off they go, up into the threatening mountains and weather, still carrying their suitcases, bags, and belongings — and things do not go well.  Even the filming of their struggle must have been enormously difficult.  They scramble, and slide, and shiver in the bone rattling cold — against which they have little protection.  They have no food.  They begin to leave their belongings behind.  It gets dark.  The winds howl and the snow covers everything.  And, they can only guess where they are going.  These twenty minutes are among the most gripping snow-survival scenes I can remember in a movie — greater, for instance, than  Robert Redford’s life and death struggles in Jeremiah Johnson. [I haven’t seen Snow Walker, or Alive, which may equal this, though neither has a wonderful little boy, beginning to deteriorate badly and for whom we are all pulling.]

As I said, things do not go well.  Some get through alive and into the kindly hands of the Swiss; some do not.  Nur Sürer delivers one of the most wrenching moments of grief you are likely to see in many a film-going year. As a parent you can not bear it; as a film goer you want to see her in more films.

Throughout, the camera work is excellent, propelling the story with its mix of close, middle and distant shots.  There are moments of natural light and wilderness which, if not for the danger of the travelers, we would think incredibly beautiful.  The sound and dialog are very well done, in Turkish and Swiss with decent sub-titles. There isn’t a false theatricality anywhere. We feel a part of the company, even while sitting in our comfortable chairs. All the characters are good, from the grandfather, to the truck driver and especially the two leads.  Çobanoglu‘s face is so thin and worn we know absolutely he is a peasant farmer.  His eyes, wide in unbelief and fear echo the larger events we see enveloping him on the mountain.

When the police finally have him in custody and are interrogating him, and the full calamity of his own decisions and naivete is upon him,  one asks “Why did you do this?”  He looks out at us, his face filling the screen, and says one word:

Hope.

There are other good immigrant stories of course.  Javier Bardem in Biutiful last year is memorable for many of the same reasons — good story, believable characters, excellent filming and acting.  But it is about immigrants semi-settled, in Barcelona, not on their way to get there. Sin Nombre was a fairly good film about the harrowing trip from Honduras to the US, through Mexico — though cluttered with a related, but too much focused on, story go vicious gangs.  One that sticks with me is a documentary titled Crossing Arizona, where the heat of the desert replaces the freezing snow.

For a good, pretty complete list of films on immigration, check out MurthyDotCom.