Not many movies try to wring poignancy out of a distraught man standing in a field, shouting his anguish to the sky, while holding two severed limbs.
By Matt Hanson
I was especially looking forward to Thou Gild’st the Even, the 2013 film by Onur Ünlü, which was my second screening of the ongoing The Boston Turkish Film Festival at the MFA. There are many interesting films on offer, but there are only twenty four hours in the day and one must be choosy. It stuck out to me not least because it had all the signs of art-film glory. I mean, call me weird, but any film that sports a epigraph from Euripides about mankind being created out of anxiety has got to be worth watching. Aside from the ominous cadence and the obscure poetry of the title, the idea of a kind of magical realism in modern Turkey done in luminously hazy black and white was an offer I couldn’t resist. I’m glad I’ve seen it, though it might be better phrased as ‘experienced’ rather than seen.
As the film begins we see Cemal, played with strained sympathy by Ali Atay, and right away we know something’s up. He’s hunched over and gazing into middle distance, moth fluttering against the back wall, doing what’s known as the Kubrick stare. His father putters around and asks him routine questions about the family barber shop and our antihero is still stewing, sitting there engulfed in inscrutable torment. Throughout the film Cemal is an interesting, if alienating, mix of curdling anger and listless despair. It’s hard to root for him, even though he has certainly been dealt a bad hand.
We find out his mother and siblings died in a fire not all that long ago and now it’s just him and his father, who is still deep in shell shock. Cemal is, as you can probably imagine, having a bit of an existential crisis. He’s stuck in emotional catatonia throughout the film, agony hidden behind his pained brown eyes. The situation isn’t exactly helped by the fact that he, along with the rest of the people in his small Anatolian town, possesses supernatural powers. I didn’t catch an explanation of the reason for these magic powers or their origins, but it didn’t matter. The fact that Ünlü treats this wonderfully surreal concept with ironic literalism is part of the charm. Cemal, as we come to find out, can both walk and see through walls. This knack for voyeurism leads to his catching a rather awkward glimpse of Yasemin, played by a feisty and fetching Demet Evgar, who possesses telekinetic powers.
Cemal spontaneously invites her out for sodas in the public park, where he shows her his depression medication – y’know, like you do – and they take it and suddenly commence to levitate until they inexplicably find themselves flying over the city. It’s a magic carpet ride that’s a little bit of a mix of Scheherazade and Steppenwolf. The audience started laughing once the pair fell back to earth, especially after the lucky couple decide to reaffirm their midair wedding proposals and suddenly begin repeatedly vomiting into the grass. Don’t worry, you heard that right. Ünlü is apparently known for a kind of black humor which wouldn’t be out of place in a Coen Brothers film, particularly when it comes to the fates of his characters. He gets quite a bit of merriment out of yanking the trapdoor open beneath his figures. Ünlü consistently and entertainingly subverts any and all standard movie drama clichés, chopping conventional reactions into confetti.
So the two crazy kids get hitched and things start to take a turn for the worse. Cemal’s still brooding and angry, starting to lose some of his ontological grip on reality, acting as a soccer referee to maintain some kind of tenuous grip on existence, an existential alibi of sorts. He’s a little like Roquentin in Sartre’s Nausea, and poor Roquentin didn’t have any better a time relating to the opposite sex than Cemal does. In one grueling and visceral scene he beats Yasemin because he is convinced she is cuckolding him with a local tycoon. Cemal later shoots the man point blank in the face with a shotgun, only to find that he is unable to die. The man in question sort of shakes it off, ambles up to him and bums a smoke. They talk it out, bro to bro, which is a deeply odd moment on several levels. The immortal man nonchalantly explains that since he’ll live forever he knows everything, and everything is going to change and seem ridiculous in twenty years, and thus knowing everything is ultimately as meaningless as knowing nothing. It all makes all kinds of sense in the moment, like so much of this quizzically bleak film.
Cemal, filled with confusion and remorse, decides to try and apologize to Yasemin. He meets Defne, a woman who sells books on the street and whose super power consists of being able to stop time, Zack Morris-style, by putting her hands together. She recommends to Cemal a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets with the titular phrase embossed on the cover. Cemal’s not much for poetry but he gives it a shot. He reads it to Yasemin in a beautifully framed shot underneath the porch at night. The magic of the words starts to take effect until Cemal’s lumbering dad, shirtless and disheveled, comes in to ask Cemal about something stupid and looks at him and what he‘s doing and stares at him like he‘s insane and eventually shuffles away. This also got a big laugh from the audience — it was a great, realistic, witty moment. Cemal continues reading the poem and it’s good and everything, but it turns out that there are things even Shakespeare can’t fix.
It’s hard to summarize a film like this, partially because so much of its narrative is dreamlike and a good part of its impact comes from deft editing. Ünlü’s camerawork uses a variety of tricks to generate the quirky-to-the-max atmosphere, aided by the unpredictable flow of the words and situations. The film won awards at the national competition at the Istanbul Film Festival last year, including Best Script and Best Editing. Ünlü keeps the story humming along to its own eccentric rhythm, peopling it with a doctor who weeps tears of blood and a guy who can fire a gun by making a hand gesture. The plot becomes a bit tangled at times but somehow the pieces fit together, like a hallucinogenic jig saw puzzle which keeps changing form.
I have the feeling that if I were to explain the rest of this film it wouldn’t necessarily make sense, anyway. Strange as it might sound, some movies actually need to be seen to be explained. Considering the paint-by-numbers storytelling dominating Hollywood dramas these days, it‘s kind of nice to be served up so much incomprehensibility. Not many movies try to wring poignancy out of a distraught man standing in a field, shouting his anguish to the sky, while holding two severed limbs. All I can say is that when the credits rolled, no one laughed and no one applauded. From where I was sitting, I considered that a certain kind of success.
Matt Hanson is a freelance writer living outside Boston. His poetry and criticism has previously appeared in The Millions and Knot From Concentrate, He was a staff writer at Flak Magazine until its untimely demise. Ekphrasis, his poetry chapbook, was published by Rhinologic Press.