Kuma: Berlin Film Review

A cleverly scripted, involving Austrian tale about two traditional Turkish women brings out the social perversion of the second-wife practice.

Director Umut Dag's quiet drama, which opened the Berlin Panorama, tells the story of a village girl who is recruited as a second wife.

An innocent village girl is secretly recruited as the second wife, or kuma, of a Turkish pater familias in Vienna, with a practical eye to having her take over the household when his sick wife dies of cancer. The perverse simplicity of the domestic drama in Kuma, a cleverly done, not overly ambitious first feature by talented young Austrian-Kurdish director Umut Dag, is heightened by young Begum Akkaya’s lovely and mysterious performance in her first major role. Making its weird premise seem plausible, this quiet drama, which opened the Berlin Panorama, is well-positioned for both fest and some art house dates.

If it’s hard for Westerners to swallow the idea of co-existing wives, one suspects modern Muslims have a few problems, too. Perhaps this is why Ayse’s (Akkaya) wedding to a nice, anonymous white-haired gent is passed off as a much more appropriate marriage to his handsome son Hasan. Only the family knows the truth: The pretty teenager is being shipped off to Austria as the old geyser’s second wife. No motivation is offered to explain why she agrees to such a thing, and no money is seen changing hands. The opening wedding scene is all about village life and obedience to tradition.

In Vienna, the family must adjust to the new situation. The most gung-ho to have Ayse move in is Fatma (Nihal Koldas), the mother, who is undergoing chemotherapy and will soon be operated on. She sees the frail girl as her care-taking replacement for her husband and five children when she’s no longer around. Still, preparing a sofa bed in the living room for the bride’s deflowering is a delicate matter, and there’s no getting around the awkwardness of those creaking springs as the family lays awake in the small apartment, listening. Before long, Ayse is pregnant.

The children’s reactions (two are already grown up) provide a reality check on the surreal situation. Though they still wear tightly wound headscarves out of doors, the two younger girls appear to have been born in Austria and to have absorbed many Western European values, which don’t include second wives for Daddy. With his perpetually downcast eyes and guilty look, Hasan has his own reasons for agreeing to the fake marriage, revealed in an affecting tete-a-tete with Ayse.

Just when things are settling down, a major plot twist sends the story rocketing off in a new direction. The second part of the film splits wide open in the kinky way Austrian films tend to do, raising all sorts of embarrassing social questions no character is prepared to answer. Finally, after all Ayse’s Cinderella-like masochism and self-sacrifice and the family’s outrageous bad faith, tensions explode in a highly satisfying, knock-down fight that sends genuine old Turkish values flying out the window.

The fine cast is exceptional in creating a closed-circuit world in which hidden passions can explode. Koldas’ mature performance is full of unspoken, repressed feelings, making an ideal foil for Akkaya’s blank-faced country goodness and apparently will-less compliance. The camera and tech work are modest no-frills.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Production company: Wega Filmproduktion
Cast: Nihal Koldas, Begum Akkaya, Vedat Erincin, Murathan Muslu, Alev Irmak
Director: Umut Dag
Screenwriters: Petra Ladinigg, Umut Dag
Producers: Veit Heiduschka, Michael Katz
Director of photography: Carsten Thiele
Production designer: Katrin Huber
Costumes: Cinzia Cioffi
Editor: Claudia Linzer
Sales Agent: Films Boutique
No rating, 94 minutes