Monday, October 06, 2008

NYTFF: Love and Honor

The modernization of Turkey is generally considered a positive development, but there is a dark-side to such social progress. The rise of organized crime would be one such unwelcomed innovation, as would the disrespectful nihilism of the next generation of criminal entrepreneurs. It is such forces that come to the fore in the very contemporary drama Love and Honor (Kabadayi, trailer here), screening Tuesday at the New York Turkish Film Festival.

Do not call Ali Osman a Mafioso. He was a gangster who ran his operations on his own terms, without the patronage of the mob or corrupt officials. A true man of respect, at the height of his power, what he said went. Eventually, he did his time and lived to tell his stories. However, he will not remember them much longer, as his mind is giving way to the ravages of age.

The widower Osman’s twilight years are quiet, spent drinking with old comrades or managing the charity soup days at his club. His best friend Haco can see he is slipping, but Osman is essentially resigned to his fate, until his past intervenes. On her deathbed, his lost love reveals he fathered her estranged son Murat before serving his prison sentence. At first, the annoyingly petulant Murat is less than overjoyed to meet his real father. However, when Devran, an unstable gangster obsessed with his girlfriend Karaca, shoots up their hipster club murdering the owner, Murat finds himself in need of Ali Osman’s protection.

Devran is a rabid animal, fraying from the stress of his unreciprocated passion and the blackmail of an unscrupulous racketeering cop. When he snaps, it gets ugly, but as an ostensible informer, he is protected from arrest. Finally in Osman, he encounters a foe who does not respond to threats or intimidation, because the former boss’s own body is fatally betraying him.

Şener Şen gives a richly nuanced performance as Osman. He is Keyser Söze with a social conscience, but Şen’s portrayal is completely humane and believable. Director Ömer Vargi shows a deft touch with much of the drama, playing down business like the Polaroids Osman takes in anticipation of his impending memory failure, rather than making them overwrought “acting” moments. As Osman, it is Şen’s film, but he has effective support from the Turkish character actors playing his old cronies, particularly Rana Cabbar as Haco. Still, this is not a Turkish version of Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster winking their way through Tough Guys. The stakes are high, but life is cheap in Honor, with the tragedy quickly compounding.

Ali Osman is one of the great screen characters of recent years. We never learn precisely why he carries such terrible guilt with him, but we come to understand him perfectly. In a powerful screen performance Şen dwarfs the rest of the cast, elevating the crime drama to the level of high tragedy. Like Bliss, Honor is quite an effective representative of contemporary Turkish cinema. It screens at the Anthology Film Archives on Tuesday.