Circle (Daire): Istanbul Review

Istanbul International Film Festival
Poised social drama with visual panache and strong performances.

Atil Inac's comically black drama depicts two middle-class intellectuals' Kafka-esque descent to social depths in smalltown Turkey.

Circle begins with its protagonist, the sour-faced philosophy professor Ferasmus (Fatih Al), engaging in a conversation with an artist friend about structuralism. It's language, which makes man, rather than the other way round – and then being chastised for actually having cut himself off from nearly everyone around him. It's an exchange which defines the Kafka-esque atmospherics that follows: A darkly-hued small town drama about individuals' hapless descent down the social ladder, Turkish auteur (and philosophy graduate) Atil Inac's award-winning outing wrings out a fatalism-drenched tale with a poised narrative, an inventive visual template and nuanced performances.

Having already secured critical plaudits and the odd award before its domestic release in February, Circle deserves wider international exposure – a destiny forthcoming, hopefully, given its out-of-competition appearance at Istanbul's annual film festival this week. While not exactly a flawless effort, the film showcases a gifted filmmaker presenting a unique aesthetical voice, and someone who manages to bridge the gap between genres (arthouse drama laced with hilarious moments of absurd comedy) and social milieus (with its urbanite-in-the-provinces thread never succumbing to caricatures).

The film's original title derives from yet another brief but defining conversation in the middle of the film, when a character talks about how individual existence is more or less shaped by the "circle" around him or her: Perhaps helpfully, the English subtitles pointed out how the term actually alludes to the "working environment" in which human beings struggle in or against.

And struggle is what Ferasmus does. Thoroughly alienated at his adopted city of Istanbul, he heads back to his hometown to attend to the sale of the ancestral lands after his father's death, only to find himself sucked into a bureaucratic maze, as officials say he would actually have to pay back-taxes, which far outstrips the money he would receive, and his lawyer telling him explicitly of the need to get some "hot cash" for to ease the proceedings.

The absurd exertions at town hall mirror Ferasmus' downward spiral. Arriving in town as a revered, learned sophisticate, he would eventually end up taking up a lowly job at his hometown's state-of-the-art but entirely unused white-elephant of an airport; the facility's manager would go from praising Ferasmus as "someone who must shake the ground when he walks", to later berating him (who's now his underling in the office) for being useless at work. Watching daily the happy-go-lucky life of his moustached provincial colleague Arif (Erol Babaoglu) – who slacks around at work and earns extra money by performing a hangman stunt at the local tavern – Ferasmus' resignation to fate is strengthened day by day.

His slip into despair mirrors that of his new neighbor, the stage director Betul (Nazan Kesal). Having moved to town years ago from Istanbul (where she lost her job because of budget cuts) to become artistic director of the local drama troupe, she finds herself out of work again when the municipality decides to transform the theater to accommodate money-making performances. With his desperate calls for help to her Istanbul friends resulting to nowt, Butel – like Ferasmus – also flounders in her battle against red tape; eventually, the only thing which would offer her a "guaranteed" career would be a place on a training program for female undertakers – something which would be of help, in more ways than one as the story unfolds, to the needs of her seriously ill daughter.

Ferasmus and Butel make an interesting and contrasting pair. The former's suppressed emotions and frustration with the limits of human agency (signposted towards the end when he gives away his much-thumbed Nietzsche book to the uncomprehending Arif, who is only impressed by the German philosopher's moustache) and the latter's penchant for black humor supplement each other as they find themselves countering more and more despair in life. Al and Kesal are impressive in bringing these roles to the forefront of the Sisyphian drama, their affections and frisson never overflowing into easy histrionics – even during the film's slightly compromising denouement as tragedy strikes and quite some tears are shed, non-fatalist style.

Still, Inac's mise-en-scene plays around with the absurdities which shape the narrative, with Hayk Kirakosyan's camerawork and Niko Canlisoy's editing bringing out the alienation and strangeness at work in the characters' lives. While some of Ferasmus' dream-fantasy sequences (mostly about his pained relationship with his dead father) stand at odds with the general proceedings, they never really hamper the film's general mood of depicting the Kafka-esque trials in life.

Venue: Press screening, Istanbul International Film Festival(Out of Competition), Apr. 14, 2014

Production Company: Lacivert Film Produksiyon

Director: Atil Inac

Cast: Fatih Al, Nazan Kesal, Erol Babaoglu

Producer: Derya Tarim

Screenwriter: Atil Inac

Director of Photography: Hayk Kirakosyan

Editor: Niko Canlisoy

Music: Emre Dundar

International Sales: Lacivert Film Produksiyon

In Turkish

91 minutes