'Cold of Kalandar' ('Kalandar Sogugu'): Istanbul Review

COLD OF KALANDAR Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Karafilm Productions
A beautiful slow burner.

Mustafa Kara’s intense rural drama about a Turkish family’s struggles against adversity took four awards at the recent Istanbul festival.

If a single line of dialogue could be said to summarize the theme and mood of the powerful, slow-burning and beautifully-hewn rural drama Cold of Kalandar, it would be: “Daddy, I am collecting snails to sell in town to buy a pair of trousers.” This surreal, slow-moving tale of poverty, persistence and potential redemption set in the mountains of Northern Turkey is heavily symbolic fare and beautifully shot, but it works as tightly focused drama, too, if you can engage with the driven fantasies of the wonderfully played hero and absorb the often over-leisurely pacing. Director Mustafa Kara wishes to convey this particular struggle in all its painful physicality, and the slowness of change is itself part of that struggle.

Festivals have been receiving Cold of Kalandar with warmth, and should continue to recognize its cinematic qualities as the recent Istanbul festival did, where it took best director as well as actor, photography and editing honors.

Mehmet (Haydar Sisman, omnipresent and a worthy winner of best actor for this performance at the Istanbul fest) once made a little money by finding a seam of gold in the mountains where he lives in a dilapidated hut with his long-suffering wife Hanife (Nuray Yesilaraz, also strong), their two sons, Ibrahim (Ibrahim Kuvvet) and Mustafa (Temel Kara, with disabilities), his mother-in-law and a few animals, including a bull. To the despair of Hanife, Mehmet continues to roam the mountains for days at a time in search of minerals for potential exploitation by a nearby mine. This is the dream he has made for himself and his family; the rest of us go to football games.

But his luck is bad: The family has debts, and Mehmet’s wanderings have made him a local laughing stock. “I work like hell, but we’re destitute,” complains Hanife, and indeed she is as much of a beast of burden as any of the animals. When the snows come, making it impossible for him to continue prospecting, Mehmet again decides to take up a different dream by transforming the bull he was going to sell at the market into a fighting bull, and sets about training it.

Brief scenes of dialogue are interspersed with lengthy scenes of people, mostly the family, just being and doing. For many viewers, there will be just too much of this, but it’s probably part of Kara’s logic that a film about the slow grind of everyday survival and the one man’s slow inner resistance is hardly going to play out like The Bourne Supremacy.

The longest of the dialogues comes at mid-point, when Mehmet challenges Hanife about her continual negativity towards him, otherwise known as nagging. Although the speakers are two rural Turks in a hovel, the raw content of their words has resonance for plenty of modern relationships. Their conversation moves cleverly and grippingly through a range of moods, showing that the director can handle true, raw emotion as well; after that key conversation, something subtle changes in the film, and a little light and warmth are allowed to enter.

Cunning editing by Umut Sakallioglu, Ali Aga and Mustafa Kara creates moments of mini tension: For example, one shot of a rock falling down a mountain is followed by one of Mehmet walking up, suggesting his vulnerability. It is an index of the quality of Sisman’s performance  that the viewer becomes increasingly aware of the nobility below the surface of a man who is at first sight both pathetic and vulnerable, and who is more remarkable than he can know.

The film was shot over four seasons, and it is these which determine the pace and the mood — there is the sense that behind the tale of Mehmet’s poverty and persistence, Kara is capturing for us a documentary record of one family’s (completely electricity-free) survival in brutal natural conditions. (Seeing Mehmet cut off a part of his shoe in a frozen cave to make kindling for a fire is worthy of the physical extremities suffered in The Revenant — except that this is now.)

The camerawork of Cevahir Sahin and Kursat Uresin is both celebratory and respectful of the natural world, whether in stunning, screen-filling long shots of Mehmet struggling up mountains above the cloud line or in close-ups of snails or of the ever so slightly mad eyes of the protagonist. Beauty and danger are eked out in equal measure from the texture of rocks, water, snow and metal. Matters build up to a powerful, haunting final sequence in the mist, in which the family are temporarily lost to one another, but which contains the seeds of their possible redemption.

Production companies: Karafilm Productions, Katapult Film
Cast: Haydar Sisman, Nuray Yesirelaraz, Hanife Kara, Ibrahim Kuvvet, Temel Kara
Director: Mustafa Kara
Screenwriter: Mustafa Kara, Bilal Sert
Producer: Nermin Aytekin
Directors of photography: Cevahir Sahin, Kursat Uresin
Production designer: Olgun Kara
Editor: Umut Sakallioglu, Ali Aga, Mustafa Kara
Composer: Eleonore Fourniau
Sales: Karafilm Productions

Not rated, 139 minutes