Takva -- A Man's Fear of God

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Palm Springs International Film Festival

Corazon International

PALM SPRINGS -- Turkey's official Oscar submission is a striking debut feature about the limits of ideology and dogma. Thoughtful, provocative and powerfully acted, "Takva -- A Man's Fear of God" centers on a simple, devout man whose life becomes a torment when he can't reconcile his beliefs with the real world. The paradox is that he's immersed in the compromises, hypocrisy and venality of contemporary culture only after joining a religious group. The film has amassed numerous awards on the fest circuit and recently played at Palm Springs.

Erkan Can is compelling as the sad-eyed, middle-aged Muharrem, who lives alone in a tradition-steeped section of Istanbul, where he's a shop clerk. Pious and humble, Muharrem never wavers from his routine of work and prayer. He has no contact with women, but a dark-haired beauty (Oznur Kula) appears in recurring sex dreams for which he seeks God's forgiveness. Believing that worldly matters require a good heart, not a good mind, the Sheikh of an Islamic sect (the excellent Meray Ulgen) enlists him to handle the matter of collecting rent from the order's properties.

The Sheikh's overtures have the weight of an offer he can't refuse. Soon Muharrem, outfitted in new Western clothes and provided a cell phone, car and driver, moves about the city like a mob lackey, clutching a zippered money bag. Groomed as a middle manager of sorts, he soon feels the pressures of his hapless role. His culture shock is compounded when his inflexible notions of right and wrong confront the sect's rather self-serving flexibility, a pragmatism that frequently trumps basic human compassion.

At times Muharrem's own compassion fails the test. In a devastating scene, a young refugee from Kosovo (Erman Saban) offers a reality check on the power of prayer, and the benighted Muharram, unraveling and unable to consider the world's cruel complexities, responds with breathtaking heartlessness.

Muharrem's crisis feels somewhat overwrought, striking the film's only false note before its exquisitely ambiguous conclusion. Embracing the contradictions of human behavior and the subtleties of Onder Cakar's script, director Ozer Kiziltan never stoops to argue or point fingers. He understands the dangers of orthodoxy as well as the beauty of ecstatic ceremonial worship.

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