Bliss — An Unexpected Movie

I’d had the movie Bliss in my Tivo instant line-up for quite a while and kept avoiding it.  The short blurb provided this:

After it’s discovered that Meryem (Özgü Namal) has been raped, the young girl is ostracized by her family and community, who hold her accountable for the “crime.” To salvage the family name, her father, Tahsin (Emin Gursoy), orders Cemal (Murat Han) to murder Meryem.

I’m not sure how I had happened on the title but I’ve been searching for films from Iran, Iraq, Egypt this past year and Bliss must have dropped into the sweep.  You can see why, with no other information, I wouldn’t be anxious to press Go.  As it was late last night, and I was up, and my wife asleep –who particularly would not be curious to see behind the blurb–  I thought I’d either  give it a chance or delete it.  Am I glad I began.  This is a film I would recommend to everyone, and I do specifically to you, now.

Bliss starts of with one of the most striking opening sequences, by Mirsad Herovic, you’re likely to see in a hundred movies.   The top half of the screen is  filled by an enormous rounded hill. A dark shoreline bisects  the horizontal center and a  perfect reflection of the hill fills the bottom of the screen.  The camera pans to the left showing the shore of the lake, a herd of white sheep in the middle distance and then, rising as it points down, the body of a woman is revealed, splayed like a pin-wheel counterclockwise on the muddy shore.  Back to the sheep, tightly circling clockwise and then the face of the shepherd, lined and unhappy, looking at the body, moving slowly from her socks, along her loose fitting trousers, a bit of upper thigh showing, to her fully clothed body.  Her hair fanned out around her injured face.  Next we see, reflected in the muddy water, the figure of the man walking away, the body drapped over a shoulder like a half empty sack.  He treks in front of a high wall of white cliff dwellings as more people begin to drift into the scene. No one stops him or gathers to ask what has happened.  They look askance, as if they already know.   Beneath all this a beguiling score is playing, partly ominous, partly reflective. And so it begins.

The early part of the film is all in black and white, or extremely muted colors.  The girl Meryem [Özgü Namal] is locked alone in an empty, dirt-floored shack.  A silent woman brings her a bit to eat, speaks to her only to say “Eat your food.” Her father,  goes to see the Agha — her uncle, and head man of the village.  Immediately the harsh judgment of the rural, Muslim culture is shouted.  “What was she doing all the way out there?  Seeing she was being a whore she could at least have died.”

After Meryam refuses to hang herself to compensate for the shame she has brought on her father and the village the headman devises another solution.  One of his sons Cemal [Murat Han] is just out of the Turkish Army, a commando fighting terrorists.  He is instructed to take her to Istanbul and kill her.  The images begin to shift from black and white to color, first on the train and then as the two walk around the city,  Cemal battling  with himself, caught between the old and the modern, the rural and the city value systems.    His brother who works in Istanbul and is fully estranged from the village and his father, berates him.  “What century do you think you’re living in!”

A gripping scene high on a staired tower ascending to the roadway of a bridge Meryem had been so thrilled to see, begins the next part of the journey.  Cemal realizes he cannot kill her but has no idea what to do, still carrying the weight of filial and cultural loyalty.  They find their way first to a small fish farm where they begin to settle into a more or less normal life together, chaste but aware of each other, then to a well fitted out yacht being sailed around the Agean by a friendly Turkish professor.  Improbably to them, but naturally to him, they become his crew.  Marvelous revelations begin, between them, and to us.  Gorgeous scenes of the sea and coast and an increase in their own understanding — but still filled with tension.  Cemal is alternately filled both with jealousy and tenderness and with a  sense of his manly prerequisites being injured.  The Agha, his father and her uncle, with two thugs begin to track them to finish the job his son cannot.

The ending I’ll leave to you to discover.  You’ll be knocked out by the final chase and revelation.

The movie is based on a novel by Zülfü Livaneli, [available in an English translation ]  who also wrote the terrific score but curiously did not direct, leaving that to Abdullah Oguz who has produced and directed many movies and TV series.

Meryem is played just about tone perfectly as she transitions from the terrified and abused girl, into an ambiguous companions ship with her cousin, Cemal, and finally into a beautiful, and much more assured woman, though still dressed in the modesty of her upbringing — with one significant change.   Cemal moves between his tough commando persona to a silly drunk to a miserable love-lost man with equal facility.  His father,  Ali Riza [Mustafa Avkiran] is very convincing as an authoritarian father and head-of-clan, before whom everyone drops their eyes, and seeming for much of the film to be as caught in a crippling tradition as all the rest, and merely acting out his role.   Meryem and Cemal’s mentor on the boat, Irfan [Talat Bulut] is as likable, wise and merry a fellow as we’d all love to be meet.

In fact, I think I’ll head to Turkey tomorrow and hang around the waterfront hoping to meet him!

Bliss is truly an unexpected pleasure, transnational in the best sense.  It introduces us to events and scenes not native to our experience but which find their echo in much we know from our own particularities  — from seeing rural lives and places to understanding release from old norms and taking up new ones, hesitating but hopeful.  You won’t be disappointed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *