‘The Visitor’ (‘Misafir’): Istanbul Review

Courtesy of Atlanta Film
A bleak but rewarding study of intra-family power relations

Mehmet Eryilmaz’s sophomore drama traces the effects on a woman of her return to the family home after ten years away

A woman returns home to renegotiate her relationships with the men she once left behind in The Visitor, a powerful, elliptical and strongly nuanced film in which the events are insignificant but what’s behind them is crucial -- and one of the events particularly so. To describe The Visitor as a take on the family as a site of struggle for power relations makes it sound sterile, but the characterizations and performances breathe enough dramatic life into things to make it the unsettling but thought-provoking experience which director Mehmet Eryilmaz, whose second film this is after his well-received debut A Fairground Attraction, presumably intended it to be.

The Visitor was scheduled to premiere at the recent Istanbul Film Festival, but was finally not screened,along with all the Turkish competition films at the festival, which withdrew in protest over perceived government censorship issues.

On hearing that her mother is at death’s door back in Istanbul, Nur (Zumrut Erkin) boards a bus with her young daughter Melek (Melek Cinar) and returns following a ten-year absence, the reasons for which we only learn -- indeed, typically of the film’s silences, we only really half-learn -- much later on. The mother, Zehra Hanin (Hale Akinli) is bedridden and unresponsive, leaving the house under the control of Nuri’s father Hamit Bey (Tamer Levent) and her feckless younger brother, Nuri (Ersin Umut Guler).

The men are making a mess of running the household. Nur is unemployed and, given that no marriage candidate has been found for him, he’s practically unmarriageable too. The gruff Hamit Bey is apparently capable only of watching soccer games, sitting in the local bar recounting at length his times as a soldier in what are probably pure fantasies, and more seriously running up debts which will later lead to the bailiffs moving in. There’s something about his attitude and gaze which suggests that Hamit Bey is not entirely to be trusted. The situation is leavened somewhat by the saintly widow, Sukran Teyze (Ayten Uncuogly), who keeps things ticking over.

From the claustrophobic interiors of Hamit Bey’s home, a picture emerges of a family, and therefore a society, which is in the hands of masculine incompetence and masculine evil, of patriarchal traditions which continue to go unquestioned but which are causing untold suffering.

The script is strongest when its focus is tightly on the interactions between the various characters, less successful when it strives to be symbolic, as in scenes featuring Nur and Melek playing with birds, that threadbare cinematic code for freedom. No amount of shots of birds being released from cages can compete for power with Nur’s bitter declaration that her daughter will not suffer the same fate as she has, a fate which was the reason for her ten-year absence.

The performances are superb, and entirely respectful of the care and compassion which Eryilmaz has devoted to his characters -- although, in this film which pitches the essential humanity of women against the inhumanity of men, the treatment of the women is inevitably more compassionate and nuanced than that of the two men.

Emotionally, Nur carries the film’s considerable emotional burden, and there’s the sense that it’s only a matter of time before her practical-mindedness and apparent emotional austerity are keeping the lid on a trauma which will spill out into something more dramatic. It does so in a late scene at her mother’s bedside, a brief, jaw-dropping tour de force in which Erkin moves from wild laughter to tears and back again in the truest emotional moment of a film which is full of them.

Another such moment is when Nur dreams one night that her mother is able to talk to her and that she is able to settle accounts with her before she leaves, one of several moments where Eryilmaz’s haunting film seamlessly and effectively moves from grim reality into fantasy, memory, or dream.

Production company: Atlanta Film
Cast: Zumrut Erkin, Tamer Levent, Ayten Uncuogly, Ersin Umut Guler, Hale Akinli, Melek Cinar
Director, screenwriter: Mehmet Eryilmaz
Executive producer: Sultan Ilhan
Director of photography: Cemil Kizildag
Production designer: Gulcin Fathirezaei
Editor: Ugur Hamidogullari, Sultan Ilhan, Taner Sarg, Mehmet Eryilmaz
Sales: Atlanta Film

No rating, 125 minutes