'Lack' (‘Eksik’): Istanbul Review
Turkish actor Baris Atay’s debut is a minimalist study of the long-term emotional effects of political violence on a family
A traumatized victim of long-ago political events returns home with uneven dramatic effect in Baris Atay’s occasionally potent but more often undercooked Lack. Though it tackles major themes of twentieth-century Turkish history in an effectively minimalist, accessible way, there is nonetheless something lacking at the film’s heart, and that something is its indecisively-drawn central character, played by the director, who fails to carry the dramatic burden demanded of him. Released last week in Turkey, the film was scheduled to premiere at the Istanbul Film Festival, had issues over perceived censorship led to the cancelation of screenings of all the Turkish films in competition.
The tension, urgency and horror of the first fifteen minutes of Lack, despite a clumsy score that's thankfully later abandoned, suggest that if ever Atay should choose make a more mainstream political thriller, then it would be worth watching. In 1981, shortly after the coup d’etat, a man is taken into hiding by two others: they move hastily through back streets to a place of safety, where he is reunited with his pregnant wife Melek (Funda Eryigit), his young son and his father-in-law (Ugur Polat), an authoritarian former colonel. But the knock on the door comes. Husband and wife are arrested and tortured: the escapee presumably dies: the wife is released from prison but banished by her father-in-law to a country town: and the son stays behind, to be brought up his grandparents.
Such a setup promises a labyrinthine tale of revenge, passion and intrigue. But that, of course, would be the movies: what the film delivers instead is a slow meditation on, and study of, the psychological impact of all this, thirty years down the line. The son, Deniz (Atay) is now a security guard. Fired after being found drinking on the job, he returns now returns to the house in the town where the now-aging Melek (now Nur Surer) lives with her other son Devrim (Emre Yıldırım, the character’s name is Turkish for “revolution”), Deniz’s brother. psychologically and physically damaged by the violence inflicted of all those years ago, and wheelchair-bound.
As the title suggests, the film is about what these characters, particularly Deniz, lack. And indeed Deniz lacks just about everything: a sense of purpose, a sense of identity, a family, and love. When it comes through the door in the form of Dilek (Toprak Saglam), beautiful in both body and soul, he barely knows how to react. There is briefly the possibility of redemption, and then tragedy inevitably strikes.
Something else that Deniz lacks is much interest. A character who has been traumatized into emotional numbness does not of course need to be likeable -- and it is just about possible to put the disagreeable fact that he’s failed to visit his blood mother in thirty years down to his trauma - but he does need to be interesting. Although Atay works up a decent enough portrayal of an emotionally stunted man, one who lives perpetually on the edge of violently exploding, the character never develops, despite his exposure to the almost angelic goodness of the two women whose lives he has unexpectedly entered.
All that said, the script does engage with some of the complex emotional issues which play out in any society which has relatively recently experienced a dictatorship, particularly themes of guilt and blame: as Deniz points out, his parents have put their political beliefs before their children, and engaged in a fight they couldn’t win. It is not so easy, as Melek wishes, to “forget the past”.
The final credits highlight Atay’s sense of debt to his own mother and indeed to all women, and indeed, there are sometimes practically halos above the heads of both Melek and Dilek. That said, Melek remains the film’s most compelling figure, particularly through her one-sided conversations with her son, where frustratingly the emotional input comes only from her.
Emre Yildim’s performance as the severely disabled Devrim is also noteworthy in its intensity, especially in the film’s more emotionally intense moments, but their troubled relationship feels under-explored, Deniz refusing to emotionally react to it. Two brothers, locked in a room, the one traumatized, the other incapacitated: in Lack, it’s a situation which generates a few unusually potent cinematic moments as well as serving as a crude but effective symbol of a nation at tragically at war with itself.
Ali Aga’s editing regularly cuts into new scenes with startling, brusque rapidity, practically the only stylistic flourish in a film which generally plays it straight.
Production company: Barikat Film
Cast: Nur Surer, Baris Atay, Toprak Saglam, Emre Yildirim
Director: Baris Atay
Screenwriter: Mehmet Kala, Seref Notka
Producers: Baris Atay
Executive producers: Ozlem Turan
Director of photography: Baris Aygen
Production designer: Devrim Omer Unal
Editor: Ali Aga
Composer: Ugur Ates, Saki Cimen
Sales: Barikat Film
No rating, 105 minutes