Things I Cannot Tell (Deniz Seviyesi): Istanbul Review

Istanbul International Film Festival
A technically serviceable take which follows the much-travelled tropes of the returning-to-roots romance-drama genre.

Turkish-US joint production charts a married and pregnant New York-based Turkish woman's reunion with her first love as she returns to her home country.

The story of a slick New Yorker returning to her rural roots to confront her first love; images of middle-class family lives being led on the seaside in the summer; a electronic, melancholy soundtrack washing over the permeating friction and frisson crackling between the protagonists. What many a Sundance-oriented romance drama has, Things I Cannot Tell possesses in droves – including the generic devices such as the standoff between the former and current beaus in a soccer match, and the big reveal about what made the lead character leave home in the first place.

But the Columbia University film school graduates Esra Saydam and Nisan Dag's debut feature doesn't unfold in sweet home Alabama or smalltown Minnesota, but in a Mediterranean town in southwestern Turkey. Universal in its theme and outlook, only the language would betray the film's roots and origins: with US funds on board and Americans helming the camerawork and music, Things I Cannot Tell could have happened anywhere – and the mature atmospherics and measured performances could somehow secure the film some international currency. Success at home should be easier to come by, however, given the local standing of its young lead stars and the sophisticated middle-class lives (both in Turkey and in the US) being shown on screen.

Making its bow on Apr. 18 at the Istanbul International Film Festival – where it premieres as an national competition entry – Things I Cannot Tell thrives on the nuanced performance of the lead actor Damla Somnez. Playing a character somehow also named Damla, she delivers a turn filled with the confusion and listlessness of a soul at a crossroads: seeming happily married and employed in New York, the news of her cousin trying to sell off the familial holiday home back in Turkey brings back haunting specters of the past – a confusion further augmented by her coming to terms with her pregnancy.

It’s in this unstable state that she returns to her home country with her husband Kevin (Jacob Fishel), a kind and generous man who has decided to purchase the villa so as to keep his wife’s links with her roots intact. Never did he imagine that he’s bringing up long-suppressed emotional schisms with this move: Damla’s homesickness is in fact more rooted in the yet-extinguished emotions she possesses towards her first boyfriend Burak (Ahmet Rifat Sungar, the star of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2009 Cannes prize-winner Three Monkeys), whom she abruptly left eight years ago to start anew in the US.

As Damla’s mood darkens further as she watches Burak leading a new life with his mild-mannered sculptor girlfriend Ipek (whom she sourly dubs as “Rapunzel”, and played by Ayca Yagcioglu), her dream marriage with Kevin begins to unravel: as he discovers the reason behind Damla’s decision to name their first son Burak – somehow she convinced him it’s an homage to Barack Obama – tempers begin to flare, as revealed secrets drive the pair into increasingly morally ambivalent moves.

While weighed down at parts with the odd navel-gazing moments of ennui, Things I Cannot Tell is slickly produced and finely filmed by John Wakayama Carey, who is lensing a feature-length film for the first time after three years’ work on TV commercials and shorts, and scored by the young West Virginia-based musician Kyle Woodworth. The technical expertise on show has managed to propel the film’s admittedly conventional narrative to more highly-strung heights, something assisted by the photogenic cast and settings on show. Having now mined a much-used romance-drama template, Saydam and Dag stand in a good stead in developing something more idiosyncratic with their sophomore effort – something that should match their debut’s original title of A Sea Apart.

Venue: Press screening, Istanbul International Film Festival (National Competition), Apr. 13, 2014

Production Companies: Karlakum Film, Sand & Snow Films, Dodgeville Films

Directors: Esra Saydam, Nisan Dag

Cast: Damla Sonmez, Ahmet Rifat Sungar, Jacob Fishel, Ayca Yagcioglu

Producers: Esra Saydam, Gerry Kim, Robert Lavenstein

Screenwriters: Esra Saydam, Nisan Dag

Director of Photography: John Wakayama Carey

Editor: Ozcan Vardar

Music: Kyle Woodworth

International sales: Karlakum Film

In Turkish and English

105 minutes