Midnight Express (1978)
Bad press for Turkish prisons, this film is based on a true story. Oliver Stone wrote the script, and it is said to be not entirely faithful to actual events. Though it won several Oscars and was nominated for most of the major awards, it has a bad odor. In the years following the film’s release, Stone apologized to the Turkish people for his distortions (Google “Stone sorry for Midnight Express,” December 15, 2004) and the young man who wrote the book on his experiences has also apologized. The tagline for this movie was, “A story of triumph.” Clearly it was meant to celebrate the courage and resourcefulness of the young man who broke the law in Turkey and to demonize the authorities who punished him, however harshly.
It opens in Istanbul, October 1970, the week Janis Joplin died. There are some very nice atmosphere shots of the city. A young American man, named Billy Hayes, has strapped some packages of hashish around his torso for a flight home, in 1970. He had planned on recreational use and some sales to friends. The Turkish police catch him on the runway. He ends up in the infamous Turkish prison system, and quickly comes in for some brutal treatment. The portrait of prison life is very convincing. After three and a half years, Billy thinks he is about to be released, only to learn that his sentence has been reviewed and he is to get thirty years. He makes an impassioned and deeply contemptuous speech to the court, calling the Turks pigs. This is not a film designed to inspire admiration for the Turks, or for the prisoner. Working with a fellow American (Randy Quaid), he plots an escape. Three of them dig into ancient tunnels and fail to find a way out. The excavation is discovered and Quaid is dragged off for torture. There is an informer on the ward who causes both of Billy’s friends to be taken away. He goes berserk and is put in the ward for the criminally insane. It is 1975. His girlfriend visits. She says that he is a pawn in the enmity between Nixon and Turkey. The sadistic chief prison guard attempts to beat and rape Billy, and Billy kills him. He puts on a guard’s uniform and walks out of the prison.
In October 1975, he crossed the border into Greece, and three weeks later he arrived at Kennedy airport. See Ebert or TCM for amplifications on this movie.
Pascali’s Island (1988)
Ben Kingsley plays the unassuming lead character in this film set on a fictional island off the Turkish Aegean coast. He makes some money as a low-level spy for the declining Ottoman Empire, but feels he is never recognized for his work. The year is 1908. He offers his services as translator and guide to a handsome archaeologist newly arrived on the island, and introduces him to a beautiful ex-patriot painter from Vienna (Helen Mirren). The archaeologist turns out to be a con artist with intentions of manipulating the local Turkish government for profit. Kingsley observes the archaeologist and the Viennese artist swimming naked on the rocky shore and his repressed feelings of inadequacy are aroused. He betrays the archaeologist to the government, and there is a tragic ending. The story is inconsequential, but the atmospherics are satisfying.
Times and Winds (2006) – Turkish
A finely textured and beautifully shot portrait of life in rural Turkey, this film puts the lives of several adolescent children at the center of the slow-paced drama. In general, they have unhappy home lives and even spend time contemplating the murder of at least one of the parents. But nothing much happens and the film ends in the slow cycle of life and death in the village. Scenes are spread more or less equally between households and rugged countryside. The film is most memorable for its visuals.
Climates (2006) – Turkish
This is entirely the work of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who wrote, directed and starred in this Bergmanesque drama with his wife. It opens on the Turkish seacoast where he is taking photos of ruined temples and spending time with a young woman. The relationship is not going well and they go their separate ways. In Istanbul, he looks up an old girlfriend and forcibly rapes her. Then he visits his mother, who wants grandchildren. Soon enough he is back in the girlfriend’s apartment rekindling his relationship. He is trying to finish his thesis on the Turkish ruins but getting nowhere. He flies to Eastern Europe where the girl he left on the coast is shooting a television series. They have some empty conversation and spend an uneventful night together. In the morning, she goes back to work and he flies back to Istanbul. The best shots in the movie are the ones without people. This is an emotionally bleak, self-indulgent, and mean-spirited movie. Ceylan also made Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which I have twice tried to watch on Netflix but found it bleak and uninteresting. The director has received a number of awards at Cannes.
Bliss, Mutluluk (2007) – Turkish
Turkish director, Abdullah Oğuz, boldly takes up the topic of honor killing in his home country. At the center of the story is a 17-year-old girl named Meryem, who is found raped on a beach in the opening scene. She is taken unconscious to her village where she is ostracized as a shame to her family. She refuses to name her attacker. The village headman appoints his son, newly returned from killing terrorists in the Army, to take the girl to Istanbul and kill her there. The son fully intends to carry out his assignment but cannot bring himself to do it. He and the girl escape to the Turkish seacoast where they end up on the sailboat of a dropout college professor who is trying to find himself anew, while divorcing his rich wife. He takes the two fugitives onboard as crew only to discover that they are not the happy young couple he thought them to be. Frictions rise and fall but the three continue to sail along owing primarily to the essential decency of the professor. Toward the end, Meryem is captured by henchmen from her village and a successful attempt to rescue her results in the revelation that her rapist was the headman of the village. The son returns to the village with the intention of killing his father but cannot bring himself to do it. Instead, the girl’s father shoots the rapist. The professor sails away on his Aegean odyssey leaving the two young people with a newfound love. This film successfully marks the division between those who adhere to the brutal customs of rural villages and those who seek to thrive in a new and broader world.