Istanbul is a beautiful city for tourists, but not for the down and out. The streets are mean and the living is hard for the title character of Riza, which screened last night at the New York Turkish Film Festival. Painstakingly filmed by director Tayfun Pirselimoğlu, it might be an effective calling card for Turkish cinema, but not for the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce.
Riza is a heavily leveraged truck driver facing complete financial ruin. When his rig breaks an axel in Istanbul, the garage demands ten grand up front for the repairs—cash Riza does not have. If he can not make his next run, he will not make his payments, thereby forfeiting his truck. Desperately trying to raise the money, Riza beseeches his few acquaintances for a loan, but to no avail. Not that he is particularly surprised, given that his contacts are primarily business associates and Aysel, a former lover he walked out on years ago. Eventually, in a moment of panic-stricken madness, he commits an unforgiveable crime, which victimizes people even more vulnerable than himself.
The first half of Riza is all about the trucker’s desperation and the second half is driven by his guilt. In short, it is a festival picture. Slow and cerebral, Riza is not destined for mass audiences. Pirselimoğlu establishes his decidedly naturalistic vision through his grim locations, particularly the stifling low-rent hotel (more like flop-house) where Riza finds himself trapped in limbo.
As Riza’s guilt festers, he comes to resemble a Turkish Raskolikov, yearning to confess his crime. Yet his solitary life makes it difficult for him to find someone to unburden himself with. Though the stand-offish Riza is a difficult character to embrace, even before his crime, Pirselimoğlu labors to make him sympathetic, positioning the film in a moral netherworld where survival trumps all other concerns.
Challenging but somewhat problematic, the quietly deliberate Riza is a film cineastes will greatly respect, but they will have difficulty loving it. Along with several other films in the festival, it suggests a decided bent towards social criticism in contemporary Turkish cinema, with films like Riza critiquing the callousness of modern society, and others like Bliss decrying the violent extremism of traditional life. It all results in some intriguing cinema.