Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Edge of Heaven

Life is all about coincidences isn’t it? About paths that cross or almost don’t, separated by mere whiskers of chance or often cross too late. There are ample hints of that and then some in the German born Turkish director Fatih Akin’s feature “The Edge of Heaven”. Coincidences are a valuable tool in the hands of a director, in one less accomplished they risk being trite but not so in this movie. Here an exploration of cross cultural bonds including the sameness that binds us and the differences that set us apart is done in a manner that is human, appealing, will bowl you over and yet it is done with almost an air of distance. I do not use word detachment, there isn’t any in this wonderful human drama that encompasses two nations Turkey and Germany which have many ties. Juxtaposed against the way Turkey had been rebuffed for its entry to the EU and Germany’s discomfort with its own Turkish minority this movie will feel very relevant to our times and likely stand it’s test too.

I liked that Akin does not come out for one versus the other it is likely born of his presence in dual worlds and cultures an experience a lot of us could use.

In a nutshell this film to quote the NYTime’s A.O. Scott is about..

There are six principal characters in “The Edge of Heaven”: two mothers, two daughters, a father and a son, all arranged in more or less symmetrical pairs. In the course of this extraordinary film by the German writer-director Fatih Akin (which won the best screenplay award in Cannes last year) children are lost, lost parents are never found, and generational and geographical distances grow wider.

I loved the camera work, it has done a great job of recording the myriad human emotions on the actors and also set up the moody feel that pervades this movie. I loved how it began with the camera panning across the dusty path of ground, a gas station that a car has pulled up at. Heck I thought it could be some place in Texas. But it was Turkey with the character Nejat (Baki Davrak) on his way to meet his father (as we later find out). There is a conversation here where the store attendant upon being asked by Nejat about the Turkish music playing, is told it is a local singer who “died young ..just like you”. The look that passes across Nejat’s face is it one of fear? Nejat who teaches German lit at a university in Germany is well portrayed as a guy who seems at ease in this world of two cultures. And perhaps the only time I saw a look of real joy on his face was when he walks in to a German bookstore in Istanbul. The rest of the movie we sense a wariness and a weariness to him.

The second scene is in Bremen, Germany where an older man Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz) is walking the streets in a flat cap sizing up the prostitutes along this street with its brightly painted houses. He picks Yeter (Nursel Kose) a Turkish woman working as a prostitute and after a couple of visits offers her a deal to pay her the same amount that she makes, his condition being she stay and sleep only with him. Yeter has little choice accosted as she is on the bus by a pair of Turkish men for bringing dishonor to Islam. Nejat meets Yeter at his dad Ali’s place. She has a daughter back in Turkey that she supports but has told her she works in a shoe store. Yeter meets an untimely death.. a sad accidental event at the hands of Ali, something that the viewer is forewarned with a caption at the start of that chapter of the movie.

While one might argue that letting the user know about this before hand would take away from the dramatic effect of the event, but it does not and this technique is used once again to great effect as yet another life is lost aimlessly at the hand of a child holding a weapon.

Shades of the movie babel? I was reminded of that after that scene but there is also the chronologically disordered way events unfold in the movie, some may find it confusing but I thought it served a very good purpose, it kept you thinking about what was happening.

The move shifts to Istanbul where Nejat has come with the aim of locating Yeter’s daughter, who her relatives have lost track of. Turns out Yeter’s daughter, Ayten played to great effect by Nurgul Yesilcay with her delicate looks yet an angry, forceful undercurrent has fled to Germany to escape arrest by Turkish authorities for her involvement with a radical group. Penniless and with no place to go she meets Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska) who is trying to find meaning in her life. She takes Ayten in to her home watched over by Susanne (Hanna Schygulla) and Ayten and Lotte become lovers. Ayten applies for asylum is denied and she is deported back to Turkey. Lotte much to the concern of her mother follows in an attempt to help Ayten. Lotte stays with Nejat as a tenant after putting up a sign at his bookstore (right above the spot with Yeter’s picture. Nejat has no recent picture of Ayten in his quest to find her and so uses her mother Yeter’s photo). The irony of this and other moments is conveyed well as being one of lost chances and near misses.

In a tragic episode Lotte dies led down the path by Ayten who sees her in prison and asks her to help retrieve something for her friends. Her grief stricken mother Suzanne arrives in Istanbul and gets in touch with Nejat with whom Lotte had boarded. They are in a way kindred souls, Suzanne is dealing with the loss of a child while Nejat bears the burden of the unsuccessful quest for Yeter’s daughter and that his father was responsible for Yeter’ death. There is this telling scene as he and Suzanne sit for dinner at an Istanbul restaurant of sumptuous Turskish dishes, and they toast.. to death. And the camera draws away to reveal the normal background noise of dinner conversations. Had they made their peace?

As Nejat goes to the seaside village where his father now estranged and deported from Germany has retired. Susanne seeks out Ayten in prison who seems pulverized by the news that she is indirectly responsible for Lotte’s death. The scenes of the grieving mother and her daughter’s girlfriend behind prison glass as Ayten tries to communicate in her broken English, the only word she seems to be able to say is sorry and ask for forgiveness which Susanne does. On release from prison Ayten returns to the book store that Nejat has left in the care of Susanne. And as they leave the store we see them pass the bulletin board without the sign with the picture of Yeter, which Nejat has removed in frustration before he last left the store.

The movie did not tie up any loose ends and I think that was ok. Life is hardly that simple. The movie did a splendid job of exploring the maps of human relationships, between father and sons, mothers and daughters and the forces that draw us close or force us apart.

Akin’s directorial skills were very obvious in some of the scenes I mentioned above, but there were many more. The scene of coffins being loaded off and on planes… Yeter’s journey back home and Lotte’s too.

There is also the scene where Ayten’s accomplices are captured and they shout out their names as the police drag them away, and the neighbors watching applaud. What are they applauding the police or the revolutionaries?

The landscapes of Turkey are well captured including the energy of Istanbul and the musical score I really loved.

I am glad I got to watch this movie, I recently also finished watching “Head-On” and can hardly wait to watch his documentary on the music scene in Istanbul.


Lotus Reads said...

As always, you have done such a splendid job on this review Sanjay. I remember seeing "Edge of Heaven" a while back and I was most impressed with how powerfully Fatih Akin was able to tell his story. Wanting to experience more of this director's work I scouted around for his earlier movie "Head On" and liked it as much, if not more! I think where Akin scores is that although he examines much that is wrong with the Turkish diaspora, he doesn't give in to stereotyping. Each of his characters are unique and yet universal...know what I mean?

Again, thank you for a wonderful review, I really enjoyed reading it and look forward to your next one!

Sanjay said...

Thank you Lotus! You are too kind!
How are you?
I am glad you have seen "Edge of Heaven" too as well as "Head-on".
I have to say that you are far ahead of the curve when it comes to watching movies!
I agree that Akin does not stereotype and his characters are truly universal. The other thing you may have noticed in the movies is his use of music. I think he does a wonderful job of it no?
I may write a review of Head-on at some point.
Thank you for the comment and happy holidays to you and the family.

Lotus Reads said...

Oh, yes, how could I have forgotten the music!!! Hey, speaking of that, have you seen his documentary, "Crossing the Bridge", it examines the music of Istanbul and is truly a treasure trove of music from that part of the world!

Happy Holidays to your family too, Sanjay, hope you have a wonderful time!

Sanjay said...

Thank you for the best wishes and the comments! I have seen the first 15 mins of "Crossing the Bridge". I was watching it on the train, probably not the best way to do it. I will have to try to catch it again at home.
From what I saw, I agree it documents the very interesting Turkish music scene.

david santos said...

Happy New Year....

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