Turkish director Abdullah Oguz has created a mesmerizing film based on a novel by Omer Zulfu Livaneli. From the shimmering open scenes to the surprising finale, this is a sense-luscious drama that keeps us unsettled and open to the mysteries of human nature.
Abdullah Dguz’s Bliss personalizes the brutal custom of honor killing. The 2007 film is the sometimes painful story about honor killing, an all-time fraud where institutionalized acceptability of killing a woman for offending a man or family (usually when she did not do anything but exist) continues as you read this.
At the core is the struggle of an innocent woman to stay alive in a culture where custom is stacked against her. The stage is set for Bliss in the opening scene of a primal place of beauty. A lovely shaped hill is reflected in a lake and a herd of sheep gathered in a huge circle unspool in a thread, one by one. Nearby, the unconscious body of 17-year-old Meryem (Ozgu Namal) is discovered by the shepherd and brought to her home in a rural Turkish village built amidst large rock formations. The community assumes that she has been raped and according to the custom of tore (honor killing), she must die for shaming her family.
In an early scene of “Bliss,” the glowering stepmother of Meryem, a teenage rape victim in eastern Anatolia, gives the girl a rope with which to hang herself for bringing dishonor to her family, and you prepare to endure a Turkish variation of “The Stoning of Soraya M.” That recent harrowing film, based on a true incident, depicted the public execution of a young Iranian woman falsely accused of adultery, with the graphic ferocity of B-movie torture porn.
When Meryem cannot do the deed, Ali Riza Amca (Mustafa Avkiran), her father’s cousin and leader of the village, orders his son Cemal (Murat Han), who has just returned from military service, to take her to Istanbul and murder her on the way. She is told that the trip has been set up for an arranged marriage. When this young man is unable to slay her, they both know this means they must live in exile from their home.
Accompanying her on a dangerous journey is a young man who bears the burdens of growing up in a village where men are given free rein to beat women. In Istanbul, Cemal connects with his brother who has rebelled against the strict customs and old world ways of his father and others. He also meets with a comrade from the army who tells Cemal that he and Meryem can work and live at a fish farm. It is an idyllic setting but both of them are troubled with dreams of violence. Cemal meets Irfan (Talat Bulut), a wealthy older man sailing alone in his yacht in the Aegean Sea. When the young people lose their job at the fish farm, he asks them to join him as the cook and crew. Meanwhile, Ali Raza sends two men to kill Meryem, once he realizes that his son failed to do so.
“Bliss,” fortunately, is not a one-note exposé created to shock, although its vision of a misogynistic patriarchy is almost as repellent. It observes the collision of two cultures, one ancient, the other modern, in contemporary Turkey. Directed and produced by Abdullah Oguz, “Bliss” has ravishing cinematography by Mirsad Herovic and a mystical score by Mr. Livaneli that match the novel’s feverish, poetic language. The natural beauty of the waters around Istanbul is breathtaking. And once the story moves from the Anatolian village where Meryem’s unconscious, brutalized body is discovered by a shepherd, the movie’s initially monochromatic palette bursts into brilliant color.
Özgü Namal delivers a strong, solemn performance as Meryem, a teenager who gets no sympathy from her family members or fellow villagers after she is raped. That she refuses to name the perpetrator further sullies her in their eyes. More than the novel, the film focuses on Meryem’s steady awakening to her own autonomy. After fitting a noose around her neck, Meryem (Ozgu Namal) removes it and refuses to kill herself as tradition dictates. Her stern uncle Ali Riza (Mustafa Avkiran), the dignitary in the rural village who decreed her suicide, decides to wait for his son Cemal (Murat Han) to kill her when he returns from the army. Cemal’s instructions are to take Meryem, his cousin, to Istanbul on the pretext of an arranged marriage and dispose of her en route.
The young soldier’s sympathy for the disgraced girl, whom he routinely reviles as a whore and smacks in the face at any suggestion of what he deems improper female behavior, conflicts with his fundamentalist beliefs. In one scene he calls her a demon after having an erotic dream about her. But he can also be tenderly protective.
He delays the killing until they reach the city, where they visit his brother Yakup (Erol Babaoglu), who disparages the village’s benighted customs. Still feeling obliged to follow orders, Cemal takes Meryem to a bridge and instructs her to jump. But when the do-or-die moment arrives, he plucks her from the edge, and the cousins become fellow fugitives from their repressive background.
They find lodging and work on a remote fish farm and later on the yacht of Irfan (Talat Bulut), a suave, white-haired Turkish professor, educated in the United States, who has just left his unhappy marriage to a wealthy woman.
In one of the most pointed scenes of culture clash, Irfan instructs Cemal to set the table and serve dinner. When Cemal refuses to do “women’s work,” Irfan exerts his authority as the ship’s captain and declares, “There are no women’s jobs and men’s jobs on my boat.” Cemal also assumes that the fatherly interest Irfan takes in Meryem is really lust waiting to pounce. And when she disappears with Irfan on his motorboat to observe marine life, a potentially lethal tussle between the soldier and professor breaks out upon their return. Irfan has his own demons: his dream is to find a way of living in which he doesn’t have to think about tomorrow. As Cemal and Meryem discover the cosmopolitan world, with its bikinied young women who drop by from other boats, Meryem chafes at Cemal’s dominance. But traditional ways don’t die easily. Cemal’s indoctrination in hyper-masculine authoritarianism runs to his very core, and he often reacts violently without thinking. The movie goes out of its way to ridicule his attachment to his macho military title, “commando.”
There are moments aboard the boat in which the competitive male rituals between him and Irfan recall Roman Polanski’s “Knife in the Water.” But the game-playing psychodrama in “Bliss” is only a minor element in a panoramic allegory of Turkish national identity, beautifully acted by Mr. Han, Mr. Bulut and especially by Ms. Namal. The film’s many lovely views of Turkey’s southern coastline make it a satisfying travelogue, even if Bliss seldom ventures into rougher, more interesting waters.
The screenplay, written by Mr. Oguz with Kubilay Tuncer and Elif Ayan, turns the novel, in which the rapist’s identity is disclosed early on, into a thriller in which the truth is revealed in an explosive Hollywood ending that rather too neatly ties up loose ends left dangling in the book. The most blissful part of “Bliss” is the natural beauty of Turkey, from remote mountains to frantic Istanbul to the beautiful blue waters of the Aegean, as lushly photographed by Mirsad Herovic. However streamlined, this consistently gripping, visually intoxicating film stands as a landmark of contemporary Turkish cinema.
BLISS Produced and directed by Abdullah Oguz; written by Kubilay Tuncer, Elif Ayan and Mr. Oguz, based on the novel by Zulfu Livaneli; cinematography, Mirsad Herovic; edited by Levent Celebi-LewQ and Mr. Oguz; music by Mr. Livaneli; art director, Tolunay Turkoz; released by First Run Features. In Turkish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Talat Bulut (Irfan), Ozgu Namal (Meryem), Murat Han (Cemal), Mustafa Avkiran (Ali Riza), Emin Gursoy (Tahsin), Sebnem Kostem (Done), Meral Cetinkaya (Munevver) and Erol Babaoglu (Yakup).