Everybody Looks for His Cat (Chacun Cherche Son Chat) was a title of a well-known French film of 1996, directed by Cédric Klapisch. The story is very simple: when her cat disappears, a young woman cancels her holiday, starting to look for him in the neighbourhood, meeting people, searching not the cat, but love, understanding, caring and some human warmth. In the Turkish film Zuhal, presented at the 23rd Festival of the European Cinema in Lecce (2022, November 12th-19th) and awarded by Fipresci’s Jury, an upper-middle class heroine, Zuhal, lives her comfortable life in a high standard building of a residential district in Istanbul.
Zuhal is a modern, independent, Turkish woman, who pursues her professional career as a lawyer, having a passionate relationship with her boyfriend, a little daughter, and a strong character. The last aspect will turn out to be very important as we will discover soon. At the very beginning, the spectator can imagine that the young Turkish female director Nazli Elif Durlu, whom Zuhal is a debut feature, choses a style of the classic social satire: her film is composed of successive sketches with brilliant pithy points, showing and underlining the absurd aspects of the daily life. These separate, quite common and well known events, derive directly from the tradition of the “theatre of absurd”: the lazy workers leaving an enormous cupboard in the corridor, the heroine having sex on-line with her lover working in Dubai, speaking to her daughter and to her housekeeper – apparently, there is nothing unusual about that but, at the same time, the car alarms howl in the street and the neighbours’ shadows appear in the staircase as an invisible menace. And there is a cat.
The world of Zuhan, filtered by her psychic takes always more surrealist form, which hits its peak when she starts to hear a cat’s “meow”. Theoretically, this cat doesn’t exist and has even no right to exist as the regulations of the building forbid to own animals and Zuhan herself has never liked cats. The film of Durlu follows therefore, toutes les proportions gardées, the path of The Tenant of Polanski – we are obliged to ask ourselves if this persistent “meow” isn’t a product of the main’s character disturbed imagination. One can find in Zuhal some similarities with Ettore Scola’s movies and his surrealist glance at the reality. Everything changes – Zuhal’s neighbours, shot in static poses as if they stepped down from the Byzantine icons suddenly lose their common banality, exposing their internal failures, contradictions, and incoherencies. The masks fell, the filters disappear, and the myths are destroyed, including these of the happy motherhood, traditional family, career and so called “normality”. The heroine – a strong, level-headed, and knowing exactly what she desires “executive woman”, is at first, afraid to be a victim of her own hallucinations. But the “meows” remain too obvious, so she decides to initiate and to conduct her own investigation.
The film of Durlu reaches at this moment another dimension, transforming itself into an incisive social metaphor. The neighbours, investigated by Zuhal, firmly refuse any collaboration and help, accusing her of breaking the existing rules and denouncing her to the Steward of the House. Zuhal herself fells as she was in some kind of “cat psychosis”, renouncing to her active previous life to sacrifice herself to her journey to the truth. Step by step, she starts to meet more and more eccentric persons, as a retired judge woman who challenges the district regulations making the regular assaults on the cars parked in the street. Because the pursuit of truth requires not only the individual and civic courage, but also much time, Zuhal suspends her professional and personal contacts to concentrate herself on the life of the habitants of her condominium. In their eyes she is not anymore, an eccentric upper-class lady, on the contrary, she becomes an inconvenient person, breaking their peace, life’s habits and their daily routine. She is an outsider who sees and feels more, as described Colin Wilson in his famous best-seller under the same title. The scenes of Zuhal wandering in the building, listening to the noises coming from the flats and, at the end, sneaking in an empty apartment to crush the wall with a hammer are hilarious and very intelligent at the same time: the society never accepts the rebels, the freedom is never given, it should be taken.
“While using Zuhal’s struggle for the cat as an element of curiosity, we tell a personal struggle of a woman, the cost she pays for doing whatever she thinks is right and her transformation at the end of this journey “ – said Nayli Elif Durlu in her statement about the film.
At the end, Zuhal will win her journey to the Truth – the cat really exists. The situation changes as the unhappy “meows” were heard also by a little girl – in many cultures there the adages tell that a truth comes from the mouth of a child. The film of Durlu carries a hope: even the only person can change a world on condition that she finds enough courage and strength to defy the conformity, cowardice, fear, denunciation, and denial. The exceptional value of the movie lies in its multi-layered dimension – it can be analysed on several levels, as a grotesque portrait of an upper-class woman, a social satire or, in its most important aspect, as a metaphor of the social and political life in contemporary Turkey.
Zuhal also brings a study of the women’s position in modern Turkey and a deep analysis of the typical social statures. The courage in the film is symbolised by the women: Zuhal herself, the rebelled judge and seemingly happy domestic mother who at last dares to be honest. The women are the heroes, not only of the daily life. Each revolt, even the smallest one, is a chance to change the things, despite the price that we have pay for it. What is quite amazing, the film of Durlu, shot without any State’s funds or subventions didn’t meet any censorship problems in Turkey, despite its strong political and social message, audacious scenes, erotic dialogues, and the character of the modern and free heroine, wearing shorts. In 2022, Zuhal won the prize for best first feature at Istanbul Film Festival and was released with success in Turkish movie theatres. Last but not the least, the director showed her film personally in Turkish conservative countryside and, as she told me, even there the young women in hijab recognized themselves in the main character. Obviously, Nazli Elif Durlu managed to make a universal film. At the Festival of the European Cinema in Lecce Zuhal also received a prize for the best screenplay, the main award went to the Georgian film A Room of My Own by Ioseb ‘Sobo’ Bliadze. The screenplay of Zuhal was partly written by life itself – that’s why the film of Durlu can be considered as a value and a warning, at same time. Because everybody should look for his cat, should be careful and caring. Especially in our difficult and so complicated times.
Edited by Rita Di Santo
© FIPRESCI 2022