Strangers in the House: Istanbul Review

Deeply moving film summons up the tensions between Greece and Turkey without ever turning into a political tract.

The Turkish film is a well-observed character drama that also illuminates the troubled history of the region.

ISTANBUL -- The long history of conflict between Greece and Turkey has generated a lot of bloodshed in the real world and a fair amount of potent drama in literature and film. A fresh approach to the subject invigorates Strangers in the House, one of the most affecting movies shown at this year’s Istanbul Film Festival. The film may be too specialized to achieve much exposure beyond the festival circuit, but it’s a small gem that will stir audiences who have a chance to see it.

The film begins as Agapi (Melpo Zarokosta), a stubborn, spirited woman in her 80s, travels from Greece to a small fishing village on the Aegean coast of Turkey, accompanied by her granddaughter Elpida (Romy Vasiliadis). At first she refuses to explain the purpose of her visit, except to say that she wants to return to the town where she grew up and in particular to the house where she was raised. When they arrive, the two women encounter Yasar (Fatih Al), who now owns the house and dismisses the old woman’s insistence that this house still belongs to her. Yasar’s mother has recently died, and he hopes to turn the house into a hotel. But he is intimidated by Agapi’s ferociousness -- and unmistakably attracted to Elpida -- so he agrees to let them stay in the house until Agapi can conclude the mysterious business that she claims to have in town.

The older woman’s back story is parceled out in small bits of exposition. Eventually we learn that she was forced to leave Turkey during the massive population exchange that followed one of many Greco-Turkish wars at the end of World War I. Is it just nostalgia for her homeland that has led her to return, or does she have another purpose? The answer to that question is delayed until the very end of the film, but when it comes, it packs an emotional wallop. The population exchange forced Agapi to leave a Turkish man whom she loved, and the two lost contact, though she has never forgotten him. The film is a powerful but subtle indictment of war, reminding us how ordinary people’s lives can be drastically altered by momentous events swirling around them. 

But the film is shrewd to couch its larger political statement in a well-observed character drama. We really get a feeling for the single-minded Agapi, the lonely Yasar, and the group of cronies who hang out with him and complain about the constrictions of village life. This is a town where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and Yasar does not quite fit in with the local louts and gossips. He once dreamt of a different life in the city, and his house is crammed with books and old phonograph records that his buddies have trouble appreciating. He finds a more sympathetic ally in Elpida, and despite the language barrier between them, she is intrigued enough by his melancholy nature to make us feel there might be a mutual attraction.

All of the performances are first-rate, though Zarokosta as the iron-willed Agapi invevitably dominates the movie. Directors Ulas Gunes Kacargil and Dilek Keser bring the town to life with vivid images.  The handsome cinematography is a major asset, and it adds complexity to the film. We recognize the beauty of the landscape that entices both Agapi and Elpida, but we can also understand why the isolated town oppresses Yasar. At times the film is reminiscent of Fellini’s I Vitelloni, though a nice modern touch is that one of the members of Yasar’s gang of malcontents is a young woman who hangs out with the men. The low budget, however, may have contributed to the film’s somewhat confusing sense of time. Presumably the story takes place in the 1990s rather than the present day, but the details of costume and sets never quite establish the exact period when the story unfolds.

 But these dissatisfactions are minor. Welcome bursts of humor punctuate this sharp slice of provincial life, and the emotional climax -- when Agapi recalls the lost love who inspired her to make this arduous journey -- may move audiences to tears. This haunting, elegant film lingers in the memory.

Venue: Istanbul Film Festival
Cast: Melpo Zarokosta, Fatih Al, Romy Vasiliadis, Cem Bender, Ferit Aktug
Directors: Ulas Gunes Kacargil, Dilek Keser
Screenwriter: Ulas Gunes Kacargil
Producers: Ozkan Yilmaz, Serkan Cetinkaya, Dilek Keser, Ulas Gunes Kacargil
Director of photography: Turksoy Golebeyi
Art director: Isil Caglar Narler
Music: Ulas Gunes Kacargil
Editor: Hande Sakarya
No rating, 90 minutes