Sometimes cinema's most significant role is not to entertain as much as to remind us of the world's darker sides, where enlightenment has not overcome cultural traditions. Austrian actress turned filmmaker Feo Aladag has chosen one of those, the practice of so-called honor crimes, as the backdrop for the tragedy of "Die Fremde" (When We Leave), her ambitious but unsteady writing-directing debut.
Germany's Oscar entry in the foreign film category, which did not make the final cut this week, begins in Istanbul, where a young mother, Umay (Sibel Kekilli), finds she has married into a life of beatings and humiliations. When her husband (Ufuk Bayraktar) turns on their young son Cem (Nizam Schiller), Umay decides she can take it no more and heads back to her family in Berlin.
But home is no safe haven. Though she is German by birth, her family is Turkish to the soul and soon being torn apart by the tight-knit and rigidly patriarchal community. In resisting a spouse, even an abusive one, she has, according to tradition, shamed her family. Unless she returns to him, nothing short of her death will restore the family honor.
With that as a starting point, Aladag uses Umay's situation and the family's arguments over her fate to examine why honor crimes still exist and why change has been so slow in coming. It is a difficult subject, and the complexities at times overwhelm the film.
What makes for such a conundrum in "When We Leave" is the relative education and sophistication of the family — these are no barbarians, yet they contemplate a barbaric act. Aladag has said that she was inspired to take on this story in the wake of a series of honor killings in Germany a few years ago, making the film sadly relevant.
Although there is tragedy at the center of the story, the filmmaker has created in Umay a hopeful side. Kekilli, herself a Turkish-German, brings a quiet fortitude to her character's attempts to argue her case to her family and carries the film on her slim shoulders. It is a performance she fills with love and forgiveness but never acceptance, no small feat since it is mostly read in the language of her eyes.
The filmmaker uses the internal struggles of each family member to examine the various threads of the debate, some more successfully than others. The most stereotypical is her older brother (Tamer Yigit), a bundle of rage and a target of ridicule among the young toughs he runs with. Better is younger brother Acar (Serhad Can), torn between love for his sister and allegiance to the family. Younger sister Rana (Almila Bagriacik) is in Umay's camp until her fiancé's family ends her engagement.
Saddest is Umay's father (Settar Tanriogen), who loves her but perhaps not enough to withstand the growing community pressure, and her mother (Derya Alabora), who wishes her daughter had simply not stirred the pot.
While the family debates what should be done, Umay begins to create an independent life — moving into a women's shelter, finding a job, returning to school and developing a romance with German co-worker Stipe (Florian Lukas, wonderful in "North Face").
Working with director of photography Judith Kaufmann ("Elephant Heart"), Aladag has created a distinct visual sensibility for each of Umay's worlds — the dusty poverty of an Istanbul suburb where everything is drained of color, including Umay's face; the claustrophobia of Umay's family home in Berlin with its maze of hallways and locks on her door standing in contrast to the warmth of its decor; and the loft apartment she rents with Stipe, high ceilings, sun-drenched windows and white walls, unfurnished and unfinished, like Umay.
Yet in trying to do so much, Aladag may have taken on more than she can quite handle — there are times when the tension lags badly and the story loses its way as Umay spins between her worlds. Still, it's a worthy start, and Aladag's distinctive voice helps the film survive any dismay.