An idiot, a doctor and three sisters

BERLIN: Stories of rural life sustain Turkey’s art house film production, at least the movies that get exported. In this, “K?z Kardesler” (A Tale of Three Sisters), the lone Turkish title in the main competition of Berlin’s International Film Festival, is true to form.

The third feature of writer-director Emin Alper, “Three Sisters” is set somewhere in central Anatolia, in a village and pasture nestled among mountain peaks. Alper’s story centers on the modest stone house of Sevket (Mufit Kayacan), a widowed sheep farmer who lords over a household that includes his oldest daughter Reyhan (Cemre Ebuzziya), her infant son Gokhan and husband Veysel (Kayhan Acikgoz).

Aside from sipping raki with the village mukhtar, Sevket keeps busy giving orders to Reyhan, whom he treats like an indentured servant, and Veysel, who tends his father-in-law’s sheep.

A slow-witted man-child, Veysel is introduced early on in a nighttime sequence that swerves from comedy to something more sinister. Already uneasy about the way the wind is whipping through the trees, the shepherd gets jittery when animal sounds emerge from the bush. Standing to relieve himself, he panics when a flash of lightning reveals he’s been pissing on a gravestone.

As he’s begging god for forgiveness, Veysel notices he’s been flanked by a couple of dodgy-looking characters who, claiming to be sheep traders, ask who owns the sheep he’s tending. Reaching nervously for his rifle, Veysel refuses to tell them anything. The men retreat back into the night, remaining a vaguely threatening presence at the edges of the story.

The shepherd seems a odd match for the strong-willed Reyhan, who’s already had a stint living in the nearest town and has ambitions to get Gokhan out of her father’s house as soon as possible. Her contempt for Veysel is clear, though she makes use of his penis when necessary.

It emerges that theirs is a marriage of convenience, contracted by Sevket when his unmarried daughter found herself pregnant. She’d been working in town at the time, cleaning house and babysitting for a doctor named Necati (Kubilay Tuncer).

Sevket and Necati have an ongoing business relationship, grounded in a practice called besleme, which sees poor families rent out their daughters to well-off “foster parents” who can better afford to feed and clothe them.

After the doctor’s wife fired Reyhan, Necati hired Sevket’s second daughter Nurhan (Ece Yuksel) to take her place. Sevket also let out his youngest girl, Havva (Helin Kandemir), to do domestic work at another household in town.

As the film opens, Havva is returning home to mourn her foster brother’s death. Days later, Nurhan also turns up at Sevket’s house, sacked for mistreating Necati’s son. The three sisters are united in their father’s house for the first time in years, and the mingling of their personalities is at once sweet and incendiary.

Necati arrives in the village with plans to spend the night, drinking raki with Sevket and the mukhtar. For his part, Sevket wants to convince the doctor to “adopt” Havva, to take Nurhan’s place in the household. Veysel also joins the gathering, uninvited, and starts pestering Necati to help him get a job in town too.

Alper uses these encounters to explore the sometimes explosive contradictions embedded in the encounter between town and country, bourgeoisie and peasantry, privilege and ambition.

“Three Sisters” bears many of the hallmarks overseas audiences have come to recognize as “Turkish art house.” Though inspired by the work of an older generation of filmmakers, not least Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, Turkish art house conventions were set by Nuri Bilge Ceylan and given a more mystical shading by Semih Kaplanopglu. Spectacular rural locations provide a backdrop for expert cinematography and leisurely, allusive storytelling that, like a languorous bath, is adored by some and despised by others.

Like its art house forebears, “Three Sisters” reflects neorealism’s interest in relating complex social realities as they are. Alper’s work is distinct for the way he tries to balance the known, the unknown, and the unknowable, which gives this “tale” a patina of folk legend.

This is most evident in the peripheral characters. It’s never clear, for instance, whether the intentions of the two roving “sheep traders” are innocent or villainous.

Less threatening, and more baffling, is Hatice, the village madwoman. She seems unconnected to the story until we find that she enjoys munching on the sand used to mortar the stones of the village houses a taste she shares with one of Sevket’s daughters.

Reyhan, Nurhan and Havva narrate their past (and future) lives outside the village whether Reyhan and Nurhan’s time working for Necati and his wife or Reyhan’s account of how she became pregnant.

That doesn’t make them reliable narrators, of course, any more than the male characters.

Sevket spends much of the film spinning self-justifying depictions of village customs like besleme. By the end of the film these threaten to swell to legendary scale, as he intones, “Shall I tell you the tale of three ungrateful girls?”

The center of the story, in a sense, lies outside the family, in the person of Necati. The film’s most sophisticated character, his self narrative is more complex. On one hand he espouses an egalitarian paternalism in his dealings with Sevket’s family, including Veysel. Ironically it’s the village idiot who topples his calm superiority. He does so inadvertently, when informing the doctor of rumors about the village that Reyhan’s story about her baby’s father are untrue.

By the time all the stories are told, you may find you have most sympathy for the village idiot.

The Berlin International Film Festival runs through Feb. 17.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 16, 2019, on page 12.




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