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A superior genre thriller with timely political bite, The Antenna marks the feature debut of young Turkish writer-director Orçun Behram. Loaded with striking visual touches, this atmospheric nerve-jangler tips its hat to David Lynch’s gothic surrealism and David Cronenberg’s squirmy body horror, with pleasing detours into Dario Argento-style lurid giallo mania, too. World premiering in Toronto, Behram’s dystopian parable should have plenty of festival mileage ahead based on its newsworthy themes and audience-friendly genre elements. Following a North American bow at TIFF, it screens at the London Film Festival next month.
The fable-like plot, about an authoritarian government using the media for a sinister experiment in mass manipulation, has both universal resonance and specific context. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly despotic rule, state propaganda and censorship have been normalized in contemporary Turkey. More than 100 media outlets have been shut down over the last three years, while last year alone 69 journalists were jailed for publishing dissident views. Around 90 percent of Turkish newspapers now push the pro-government line; Behram describes The Antenna as a cautionary tale about “the rise of post-modern dictatorships.”
The Antenna approaches this topical subject at an oblique, Kafkaesque angle. The setting is a grungy high-rise apartment block on the bleak fringes of a nameless city. Building superintendent Mehmet (Ihsan Önal) watches helplessly as a government engineer arrives to fix a new TV aerial on the roof of the tower, apparently designed to channel state propaganda directly into every home. But after installing the antenna, the engineer inexplicably plunges to his death, an early hint that dark forces are at work. Soon afterward, Mehmet has a clandestine assignation with a young woman, Yasemin (Gul Arici), offering her a train ticket and potential escape from this purgatory. But her departure, she warns him ominously, will have dire consequences for him.
With night falling, and the first state propaganda broadcast imminent, life inside the apartment block takes a nightmarish turn. An oozing torrent of oily black slime begins mysteriously seeping down from the antenna, clogging pipes and leaking through walls. Several residents come to sticky ends through slipping and drowning in the liquid. Others are driven into a homicidal rage by accidentally ingesting it, notably Yasemin’s bullying father, Firat (Enis Yildiz), who becomes a rampaging monster apparently hell-bent on butchering his family. As a wary Mehmet enters the building to investigate, he encounters a mind-bending hellscape of faceless specters, dead bodies and giant banks of flickering TV screens. Any sense of politically loaded symbolism slips its moorings here and sails off into a creepy twilight realm of subconscious Lynchian abstraction.
The Antenna is guilty of a few first-feature fumbles including a disjointed plot, wobbly tone and overstretched running time. That said, Behram shows a strong visual flair and solid mastery of slow-building dread. Ufuk Bildibay’s heavily stylized production design, Engin Ozkaya’s atmospheric use of static-camera shots and Can Demirci’s pounding, swirling score all lend extra dramatic tension to this hauntingly weird debut.
p>Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Production companies: Lucidlab Films, Solis Film
Cast: Ihsan Onal, Gul Arici, Levent Unsal, Isil Zeynep, Murat Saglam, Elif Çakman, Mert Toprak Yadigar, Eda Ozel, Enis Yildiz
Director, screenwriter: Orçun Behram
Cinematographer: Engin Ozkaya
Editor: Burç Alatas
Producers: Orçun Behram, Muge Ozen
Production Designer: Ufuk Bildibay
Music: Can Demirci
Sales company: Stray Dogs, Paris
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