'Ivy': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
A well-acted film that's more ambitious than controlled

The second feature of Turkish director Tolga Karacelik ('Toll Booth'), set aboard an anchored bulk carrier, was shot by 'Winter Sleep' cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki

The Turkish crew of a cargo ship is stranded off the coast of Egypt when the shipping company they work for comes close to bankruptcy in Ivy (Sarmasik), the second feature of Turkish filmmaker Tolga Karacelik. The director’s first feature, the accomplished Toll Booth, looked at the whirling subconscious of a man doing a numbingly repetitive job and here there’s a similar disconnect between the through-the-motions toil of the seamen stuck on a vessel they can’t leave and what’s going on in their increasingly agitated minds, though unfortunately the more complex and ambitious film isn’t as carefully controlled and structured as its predecessor. Still, this handsomely shot widescreen affair, with an atmospheric soundscape to match, should have no problems seducing festivals and a VOD platform or two after its world premiere at Sundance.

Agitated druggie Cenk (Nadir Saribacak, the teacher from Palme d’Or winner Winter Sleep) and weak-willed hanger-on Alper (Ozgur Emre Yildirim) arrive on the bulk carrier Sarmasik (Turkish for "Hedera," hence the title) to replace two seamen. Since it’s only their second ever voyage, their relative newcomer status makes them the perfect substitute for the audience, who are also unfamiliar with the ship and the exact jobs of everyone on board. The portly, no-nonsense captain, Beybaba (Osman Alkas), who mostly keeps to himself, doesn’t trust them from the outset and with good reason: Alper wants to leave the ship almost immediately after he’s arrived and Cenk has exchanged the life of a petty swindler for a life at sea. He's also got his eye on the meds cabinet that might provide him with the material needed for his next hit.

Others on board include the religious first officer, Ismail (Kadir Cermik); the newly appointed cook, the overly sensitive Nadir (Hakan Karsak, from 2014 Berlinale titles The Lamb and Seaburners) and the stoic mechanic Kurt (Seyithan Ozturk), a silent giant of a man. About 20 minutes it, the owner of the ship declares bankruptcy and the rest of the staff is allowed to get off the ship near Egypt, while the above-mentioned six remain aboard as the necessary skeleton crew after the vessel’s impounded by a fuel company that's owed a lot of money.

What follows is a study in the initially slowly disintegrating power structure, as the days aboard turn into weeks, food and water supplies start to dwindle and there’s no sign of a solution in sight. Their passports having been confiscated, the crewmembers can’t even leave the vessel and their maintenance work on board is minimal since the ship merely lies anchored off a foreign coast. Like in Toll Booth, the protagonists here start to see things that aren’t real, especially after one of the men might have fallen or been pushed overboard and he’s subsequently spotted as a ghostly presence back on board.

Though undeniably well acted by the small but impressive cast, there’s a sense that we’ve seen all this before. In the director’s screenplay -- which was inspired by the works of 19th century English-language literary greats such as Conrad, Melville and Coleridge, with the latter’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner quoted several times onscreen -- the generally unlikeable characters are well-drawn but familiar and there’s no real new insight into the shifting power dynamics that slowly derail the initially strictly organized hierarchical structures. The slow change -- the film’s a definite slow burn, and Evren Lus’s otherwise incisive cutting doesn’t suggest how much time passes, though press materials suggest 120 days -- finally results in a final reel that feels at once logical (seen the film’s title) but also something of a surprise, as the somewhat surreal happenings haven’t been properly foreshadowed (a snail crawling up a wall here or there notwithstanding).

Turkey’s top d.o.p., Gokhan Tiryaki, has filmed not only all of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films since 2006’s Climates but also other recent Turkish marvels of cinematography, ranging from the swirling period epic The Butterfly’s Dream to the closed-space pressure-cooker drama Night of Silence. His work here is technically impeccable but feels strangely out of synch with the characters’ own slow march towards insanity and violence for too long, with the atmospheric sound work doing a much better job of suggesting how even a big boat can sometimes not be big enough to hide from either your demons or your fellow man.

Production companies: Karacelik Film, Cine Chromatix, Inignia Yapim, Kala Film, Jomami Filmproduktion, Vana Film, Asteros Film

Cast: Nadir Saribacak, Hakan Karsak, Ozgur Emre Yildirim, Kadir Cermik, Osman Alkas, Seyithan Ozturk, Ahmet Baki Kurtulus, Omer Acar, Onur Ozturk, Serkan Ozturk

Writer-Director: Tolga Karacelik

Producers: Bilge Elif Ozkoso, Tolga Karacelik

Co-producers: Ufuk Genc, Doruk Acar, Hazer Baycan, Michael Kaczmarek, Markus Boehm

Director of photography: Gokhan Tiryaki

Production designer: Ali Sahin

Costume designer: Tuba Atac

Editor: Evren Lus

Music: Ahmet Kenan Bilgic

Casting: Harika Uygur

Sales: Karacelik Film


No rating, 104 minutes