There is a modern secular Turkey and there is a traditional Islamic Turkey. Whether they can coexist within the same political-geographic borders remains to be determined. The tension between enlightened modernism and the misogynist old ways drives Abdullah Oğuz’s Bliss (trailer here), a bold look at the "honor" killing practice in provincial Turkey, opening this Friday in New York.
As the film opens, a shepherd finds young Meryem badly beaten and violated, lying unconscious near a lake outside her remote village. He carries her home not to a sympathetic family, but a cruel step-mother and weak father, who automatically blame her for her condition. The village Agha, her father’s cousin, decrees that Meryem must die for the dishonor she allegedly brought upon the family. When she refuses to do the job for them, the Agha assigns his son Cemal, recently discharged from the army, the horrific task of her honor killing.
Though a dutiful son, Cemal has no taste for cold-blooded murder. Although he is conflicted, uncertain whether he is truly doing the right thing, Cemal spares Meryem. As they take flight from their wrathful family, Meryem and Cemal must turn their backs on their former village lives. They find refuge as crew members on the yacht of Irfan, a sociology professor who dropped out of academic life, hoping to find peace of mind through life on the water.
Clearly, Irfan represents the modern secular impulse of Turkey. He is an educated man, who can talk to a former student wearing a bikini without thinking anything of it. Cemal by contrast, nearly goes into shock. A bit free-spirited but no idiot, Irfan starts to suspect the rough outline of his young crew’s troubles and does his best to help them find their way.
The three main characters of Bliss are sharply drawn and well nuanced, raising it above the level of a mere issue film. Özgü Namal gives an understated, but moving performance as Meryem, a woman abused all her life, only now starting to assert herself after suffering an unspeakable trauma. Murat Han brings seething intensity to the role of Cemal, conveying the bitterness and resentment of a man forced to confront the injustice of customs he had always uncritically accepted. As the silver-maned professor, Talat Bulut comes across as realistically flawed but deeply humane, rather than a caricature of modernist nobility.
Oğuz and Bosnian cinematographer Mirsad Heroviç use their isolated locations to create some striking visuals, showcasing the natural beauty of Turkey. Well paced, the tension is quite acute at times, growing organically out of the story.
While Bliss never mentions the Islamic religion by name, Turkish audiences could easily identify the religious context of the Agha and his malevolent conception of honor. Indeed, Islamic honor killings are still very much a reality, acknowledged even by the United Nations, which estimates thousands of women are murdered each year for perceived crimes ranging from simple flirtation to being the innocent victims of sexual assault. Like the Stoning of Soraya M., Bliss is a film that needs to be seen by a wide audience because it addresses the peril faced by far too many Muslim women in world today.
Even discounting the importance of its subject matter, Bliss holds up very well in pure cinematic terms. It is an absorbing film that incorporates elements of “on-the-run” thriller with a shrewd examination of the uneasy marriage of the modern and the traditional in contemporary Turkey. Highly recommended, it opens Friday (8/7) at the Cinema Village.