'Grain' ('Bugday'): Film Review | Sarajevo 2017

Courtesy of Kaplan Film Productions
A beautiful but flawed journey into Tarkovsky territory.

Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu’s English-language debut is a dystopian sci-fi epic filmed on three continents.

Seven years after completing his “Yusuf trilogy” with Bal (Honey), which won the Golden Bear in Berlin among many other prizes, Turkish writer-director Semih Kaplanoglu returns with his most ambitious feature yet. Ravishingly shot in high-definition monochrome, Grain (Bugday) is a philosophical sci-fi fable shot on three continents, featuring an international cast and English-language dialogue. It premiered at Sarajevo Film Festival earlier this month.

Grain is partly an allegorical treatment of 29 verses in the Koran that have special significance for the mystical Sufi branch of Islam. But Kaplanoglu also pays overt visual and thematic homage here to Russian maestro Andrei Tarkovsky’s dystopian sci-fi classic, Stalker. These cineaste touches and the director’s solid track record should snag further festival outings and possible niche distribution. That said, this Turkey-Germany-France-Sweden-Qatar co-production is hobbled by its ponderous pace and pretentious tone, not to mention painfully flat dialogue voiced by actors who are clearly strangers to English.

In a vaguely defined near-future Earth, synthetic food crops are dying out, vast stretches of land are contaminated and armies of refugees huddle outside the lethal electromagnetic zapping towers that protect the last enclaves of civilization from unwanted intruders. Inside the perimeter, Professor Erol Erin (an elegantly weathered-looking Jean-Marc Barr) puzzles over how to save mankind from apocalyptic harvest failure. In a meeting with his corporate bosses, he learns of Cemil Akman (Bosnian actor Ermin Bravo), a rogue scientist whose controversial theory of “genetic chaos” may hold the key. But Akman has disappeared, reportedly fleeing to the barren badlands far beyond the city limits.

After turning up a few cryptic clues, Erin embarks on a quest to find Akman, enlisting fellow outlaws Andrei (Grigory Dobrygin) and Alice (Cristina Flutur) to help him escape the city’s deadly border defenses. The majestic landscape that he finds beyond, shot in the Turkish interior of Anatolia, is beautiful but full of danger. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens finds so many striking tableaux here that could hang as stand-alone artworks in a gallery: poetically parched river valleys, burned-out buses, a lake bobbing with dead bodies.

Erin eventually finds Akman, but the elusive scientist initially proves dismissive and secretive. At this point Grain shifts gear from urban to rural, from science to philosophy, from engrossing suspense thriller to plodding spiritual parable. Akman is overly fond of Yoda-ish platitudes like “the entire universe is human” and “we are always in a dream, we will wake up when we die.” After 20 minutes of this threadbare New Age hokum, most of us would likely want to rip his smug holy-man beard off. But Erin embraces his new role as lowly student, nodding humbly as Akman leads him to a remote fortress of solitude where they can chew over some really deep stuff about the universe, man.

In its final stages, Kaplanoglu’s magical mystery tour becomes a collection of ruminations on guilt and ego, illustrated by runic hieroglyphs and dreamlike visions. The images are rarely less than sublime but the drowsy pacing, portentous dialogue and opaque symbolism blunt any emotional impact. Of course, Tarkovsky was guilty of much long-winded mysticism himself, but he was arguably a genius and certainly made films for a more patient, less knowing, less media-saturated age. As a commendably ambitious, visually stunning piece of cinematic art, Grain is worth taking seriously. Just not as seriously as it takes itself.

Production company: Kaplan Film Production
Cast: Jean-Marc Barr, Ermin Bravo, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Cristina Flutur
Director: Semih Kaplanoglu
Cinematographer: Giles Nuttgens
Editors: Semih Kaplanoglu, Osman Bayraktaroglu, Ayhan Ergursel
Producers: Semih Kaplanoglu, Nadir Operli
Production designer: Naz Erayda
Music: Mustafa Biber
Venue: Sarajevo Film Festival
Sales company: The Match Factory

123 minutes

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