The Lamb (Kuzu): Berlin Review

Berlin Film Festival
The world of these Turkish children is more fun, believable and, occasionally, scary than that of the adults in this gorgeously shot family drama.

Turkish writer-director Kutlug Ataman's fifth feature stars Nesrin Cavadzade and Cahit Gok as well as the wonderful child actors Mert Tastan and Sila Lara Canturk.

BERLIN -- A little boy from the Turkish countryside is worried that he might end up as the meat course of his own circumcision celebration in The Lamb (Kuzu), the fifth and most accessible film to date of artist and writer-director Kutlug Ataman (Lola + Bilidikid, 2 Girls).

The film, which recounts the story of a rural family and its struggle to come up with the money to throw a decent banquet for the village to celebrate their son’s passage into adulthood, goes back and forth between a quite cutesy mainstream tale about (if not directly for) children and something more serious and languorous, though the plights of both the father and the mother remain finally too underdeveloped to really draw audiences in. 

This Berlinale Panorama Special title also contains a generous sprinkling of humor, which should help it play quite widely on the festival circuit as well as in theatres at home and possibly, in a few offshore venues.

Little Mert (Mert Tastan) and his smart-alecky sister, Vicdan (Sila Lara Canturk), live with their mother, Medine (Nesrin Cavadzade), and father, Ismail (Cahit Gok), in the snow-covered Anatolian highlands. Dad has just found work again, in a slaughterhouse in the city, and Mom gathers willow rods in the countryside to supplement their meager income, a task for which she expects help from Vicdan but not Mert, who gets to play instead.

In an early scene, Vicdan scares her gullible little brother into working in her stead, which sets up the dynamic for the rest of the film, with her seizing on the fact he’s their mother’s "little lamb" to tell him that if they won’t find the money to buy a lamb for his upcoming celebration, they’ll put him in the tandoor oven instead.

The siblings’ interactions, well written and observed and often chuckle-inducing as well as cruel as only kids can be, are the highlight of the film and there’s one nighttime conversation in particular that stands out as both funny and insightful. A couple of scenes offer further merriment, as well as a suggestion of Mert’s stubborn resolution to not end up in the oven if he can help it, as he goes to beg the local shepherd -- whose son makes him sing and dance only to deny him a lamb because he can’t sing -- and tries to talk a gypsy woman into giving her only lamb to him.

The need for the titular animal indeed is a pressing problem for the clan, as Ismail can’t keep what little he earns in his pocket, especially after meeting an alluring woman (Germany-based actress Nursel Kose) in the city, and Medine is too proud to take money from her own mother (Emel Goksu). But Ataman fails to provide much insight into what drives the adults as people or why they make the decisions they make, especially in the case of Ismail’s ill-advised affair, which is a necessary plot contrivance but lacks any kind of character motivation. The actors can't be faulted, with Cavadzade a soulful presence and Gok a believably meek character, though it's the kids that indeed steal the show.

The absence of a score, except at the very start and end, helps to avoid sugarcoating the proceedings too much while the crystalline cinematography of Feza Caldiran turns the majestic mountains, mirror-like rivers and naked, wintertime trees of Anatolia into silent witnesses of the petty problems that worry the characters, further positioning the tale as a timeless story about human behavior, fears and desires rather than simply a cute kids story.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special)
Production companies: Institute for the Readjustment of Clocks, Detailfilm
Cast: Nesrin Cavadzade, Cahit Gok, Mert Tastan, Sila Lara Canturk, Nursel Kose, Necmettin Cobanoglu, Emel Goksu, Guven Kirac, Taner Birsel
Writer-Director: Kutlug Ataman
Producers: Kutlug Ataman, Fabian Gasmia, Henning Kamm
Executive producers: Salih Karaman, Martin Fruer, Catharina Schreckenberg
Director of photography: Feza Caldiran
Production designer: Esra Cetinkanat
Music: Can Erdogan
Costume designer: Hande Ocak
Editor: Ali Aga
No rating, 87 minutes.