The Ne Plus Ultra of Cine-Hüzün By Nathan Lee

in 26th Istanbul International Film Festival

by Nathan Lee

Dizzy with anticipation and fantasy, the first time visitor to Istanbul seeks to clarify — or perhaps magnify — his inchoate excitement by turning to a predictable source of information, the memoir of Nobel Prize winning Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. Entitled simply “Istanbul”, this book of limpid recollection and complicated feeling devotes one of his richest chapters to the concept of hüzün, the Turkish word for melancholy. Different in kind from the melancholy of Richard Burton, akin to the tristesse diagnosed by Claude Lévi-Strauss, the hüzün of Pamuk is a gentle conundrum, a collective and oddly redemptive sadness, “a way of looking at life that implicates us all, not only a spiritual state but a state of mind that it ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating.”

There follows a marvelous litany of melancholic scenes from the daily life of the city, and an important distinction between the hüzün in which Istanbullus see themselves reflected, “the hüzün we absorb with pride and share as a community,” and the charm which newly arrived Westerns discover in wandering the pathways of the fallen metropolis. For the tourist, the grand monuments of Istanbul and the “lesser detritus of empire” found in every nook and cranny are an enchantment; for those who “carry on their lives amid the ruins,” those same “little arches, fountains, and neighborhood mosques…inflict heartache on all who live among them.”

A great lover of the movies, Pamuk finds his national cinema steeped in hüzün. “Just as in the old black-and-white films,” he writes, “if the setting is Istanbul, it is clear from the start that the hüzün the boy has carried with him since birth will lead the story into melodrama.” It is hüzün, then, that accounts for the melodramatic excess of Bliss (Mutluluk)? Directed by Abdullah Oguz from a best selling novel by Zülfü Livaneli, this blatantly literal voyage of self-discovery was warmly received by attendees of the 26th International Istanbul Film Festival, where it competed for a prize in the National Competition. To my mind, hazy as it was from jetlag and over stimulation, unaccustomed to the codes of Turkish popular cinema, this earnest reconciliation of traditional values with a modern, individualist ethos allowed melodrama to devolve into the maudlin.

Takva likewise succumbs to questionable over-emphasis, but only after a full hour of superbly sustained cinema. Director Özer Kiziltan exhibits remarkable insight and laudable restraint in establishing his story of a devout Muslim’s troubled relationship with local religious authorities. The scenario proceeds with the steady rhythmic assurance of a man thumbing his tasbih, a string of Muslim prayer beads used to mark off formalized recitations and strengthen the bond between man and Allah. Our hero (tersely played by Erkan Can) will cling to them like a lifeline as he sinks into temptation, clutch at them like the thread through a labyrinth of conflicting allegiances (religion and commerce; duty and sexuality; higher powers and basic instincts). Thoughtful, circumspect cinema.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates (Iklimler) returned home from its triumphant tour of the global festival circuit to tower over the National Competition like a colossus. A gentle giant, nevertheless, and one assured the FIPRESCI prize had it not previously garnered the award at Cannes. Climates is altered by the climate of Istanbul; in light of the hüzün elaborated by Turkey’s most famous writer, the most celebrated of contemporary Turkish films grows even more poignant. Exquisitely rendered on high definition video, calibrated to the finest nuance of mood and moment, Ceylan’s melancholic study of romantic ruin seemed to eyes beguiled by Istanbul the ne plus ultra of cine-hüzün.