Somewhere in Between (Araf): Venice Review

Frustratingly slow but visually brilliant, Turkish tale of a girl, a boy and a truck driver is quality Euro cinema for patient art patrons.

Young leads Neslihan Ataguul and Baris Hacihan brighten drama by noted Turkish director Yesim Ustaoglu

The original Turkish title of Somewhere in Between is Araf, which translates roughly to Purgatory or Limbo, and this is where most viewers will feel they are sitting during a painfully slow, 2-hour voyage into the dead-end lives of two young people scarred by a traumatic event far into the film. Happily, director Yesim Ustaoglu does find light at the end of the tunnel and her closely observed 18-year-olds capture the uncertainties of a disintegrating rural economy struggling with modernization. Venice will be the first of many specialty bows, including the New York Film Festival.    

Building on a reputation for sensitive treatment of family problems mixed with social issues, as in her prize-winning Pandora’s Box, Ustaoglu pinpoints the restlessness of pretty kitchen worker Zehra (Neslihan Ataguul) and spiffy waiter Olgun (Baris Hacihan) who work in the restaurant of a forsaken truck stop in the Turkish wilds. They catch one another’s eye, but it’s clear that he’s infatuated and she’s not. 

Zehra’s naïve search for something better, a way out of the shifting landscape around her, takes the form of Mahur, a silent, snake-eyed truck driver (singer-writer-TV star Ozcan Deniz) who looks like trouble from a mile off. They meet at a wedding and engage in a dance of unspoken eroticism. Driving his 8-wheel rig over dangerous snow-driven highways, the trucker seems like a real man compared to the nice-looking boy who dotes on her.

Zehra keeps their highly taboo relationship a secret from her traditional family (heard, rather than seen, off screen) and her free-spirited, older best friend Derya  (convincing bad girl Nihal Yalcin) until it’s too late to hide anymore.

The key scene in a hospital bathroom will be remembered as a benchmark for the genre. As elsewhere, it is masterfully shot without dialogue. But whereas the rest of the film plays a waiting game that trades sophisticated visuals from D.P.  Michael Hammon for sluggish, indulgent story-telling, this particular scene is pushed to a horrific emotional level. Coming after such a long stretch of flat highway, it packs a wallop.

While Mahur is not actually mute, Deniz’s unnatural silence emphasizes his role as a shimmering mirage in Zehra’s young life. Ataguul’s striking face is matched by the depth of character she projects, and her still-waters-run-deep performance is bound to be a career shifter.

Equally notable is young Hacihan, able to throw himself into mood swings without exaggeration and never trite in depicting Olgun’s painful loss of innocence and coming to terms with adult compromise.  

Ustaoglu’s great gift is her extraordinary command of the camera, which creates resonant images that blend countryside, village and landscape into rich visual emotions, aided by Hammon’s very fine crystal clear images and Marc Marder’s lyrical score.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
Production companies: Ustaoglu Film, CDP, The Match Factory, ZDF/Arte, TRTCast: Neslihan Ataguul, Baris Hacihan, Ozcan Deniz, Nihal Yalcin, Ilgaz Kocatuurk, Can Basak, Yasemin Conka, Erol Babaoglu, Feride Karaman
Director: Yesim Ustaoglu
Screenwriter: Yesim Ustaoglu
Producers: Yesim Ustaoglu, Serkan Cakarer, Catherine Dussart, Michael Weber, Meinolf Zurhorst
Director of photography:  Michael Hammon
Production designer: Osman Ozcan
Costumes: Ayse Yildiz
Editors: Mathilde Muyard, Naim Kanat, Svetolik Mica ZajcMusic: Marc Marder
Sales Agent: Match Factory
No rating, 124 minutes.