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Review: 'Bliss'

Tradition-mandated horrors rain down on two young Turkish citizens, but perhaps they will find something sweeter.

October 09, 2009|BETSY SHARKEY | FILM CRITIC

The lake is still. A stark wind-swept dune rises above it, the image mirrored, unbroken on its surface. A herd of sheep drinks beside it. The body of a young woman lies on its bank.

Her name is Meryem and though it turns out that she is alive, that life is of little use to her anymore, for the sheepherder's daughter is the victim of an "honor crime"; her chastity lost brutally, her sentence in the small Turkish village of her birth -- dictated by tradition, demanded by the village's most powerful man -- is death.

And so begins the modern-day horror story of "Bliss," director Abdullah Oguz's powerful adaptation of Omer Zulfu Livaneli's politically trenchant novel. The sheep, which looked so serene against their harsh landscape, now become a chilling metaphor running through the extraordinary pain and beauty of this film, which puts the stain of "tore" and those who like sheep follow it blindly, or worse, who fear to question it, under the microscope.

The Turkish film is daring for its unsparing look at a subject that still tears at its people. It is one of the divides remaining between an advancing culture and a generations-old tradition, between urban and rural ways. But being daring alone is not enough and in Oguz's good hands "Bliss" offers us a great deal more.

The story takes us on many journeys both literal and figurative.

The first is Meryem's, played with a riveting quietness by Ozgu Namal, whose inability to carry out her suicide leaves the village with a problem it must solve. Cemel (Murat Han), a young soldier just back from the front lines and a distant cousin, is handed the task of taking her to Istanbul and disposing of her.

When Cemel finds he doesn't have the stomach for this killing -- at least not yet -- a slow rebirth for Meryem begins, while a disquieting awakening descends upon Cemel. If he can't kill Meryem, he will have defied his father, yet another unforgivable sin.

As the two make their way into hiding, all of the rural traditions that shape relationships and roles between men and women are tested. Each time their ties to the past loosen, Meryem flowers ever so slightly while Cemel struggles as the battle rages on inside of him.

There is solace for a while at a remote fish farm, then Irfan (Talat Bulut), a freethinking professor-author who is running from his own demons, turns up in their lives offering escape on his luxury yacht, and it takes a while for them to figure out whether he is a mentor or a menace.

There are reasons that trust doesn't come easily.

While the story is a dark and difficult one, the players in this morality tale are bathed in light and lost within breathtaking landscapes thanks to director of photography Mirsad Herovic. And despite the Turkish desert forever in the distance, survival, and if not survival, growth, always comes by way of water. If not for the lake in the beginning, Meryem might not have been discovered; if not for the fishery, there might not have been a safe haven; and if not for Irfan's yacht, well, much would not have happened.

Though Oguz has given the film almost a fairy tale quality, there are hard truths embedded throughout. He has ultimately told a story of a man and a woman, alone and at odds, giving a voice to both their dilemmas. And though only one answer is humane, by treating the issue in such an exacting manner, Oguz allows the sense of outrage to grow ever stronger.

Self-discovery always comes with a cost, and in "Bliss" the price is a great one. It is mesmerizing to watch it unfold in the lives of these two young people, and you can't help but think that the way the story ends is a window into the future and the fate of the Meryems and Cemels caught in a backwater of tradition.

See for yourself whether there is reason for hope.

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betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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'Bliss'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes; in Turkish with English subtitles

Playing: Music Hall Theatre in Beverly Hills

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