"Bliss" (Mutluluk) 2007 is the very best new movie I've seen in years, an enthralling, exquisite, moving, important film. Given current trends, I can't imagine a mainstream American film being this brave, this engaging, and this pertinent. If you are a thinking, feeling movie fan, see "Bliss." You won't regret it.
Some reviews make "Bliss" sound like a National Geographic documentary about exotic foreigners, or an essay about honor killing, or a stab at Muslim-Western clashes, or a slide show of exotic Turkish locales. "Bliss" is none of those things. It is a movie-movie, a film that sucked me into its world and made me forget my surroundings; "Bliss" made me love and care about the characters onscreen from its opening shots. I was, at times, on the edge of my seat; I cried; I shouted at the screen; my palms sweat. After the film was over, I couldn't stop thinking about it. I wanted to grab all my movie fan friends and demand that they see it and that we sit up all night talking about it.
That I loved the characters is testimony to how powerful this film is. Cemal (Murat Han), the main character, is a returning Turkish solider who's been off fighting terrorists. (The terrorists in question may be Kurds pressing for an independent Kurdish state, but the film never names them.) Cemal broods much, smiles little, carries a gun, suffers from PTSD, and is plagued by nightmares. He slavishly accepts, from his father, the all-powerful headman of his village, the job of honor killing his distant cousin, Meryem (Ozgu Namal), a naïve village girl who has been raped. Cemal is a genuinely scary guy. He curses at Meryem, denouncing her as a "whore" and a "bitch." He slaps her. In some very tense scenes, he reveals himself quite ready to, and capable of, killing several people. And yet "Bliss" made me love Cemal, care about his fate, and see the world through his eyes. In fact, when Cemal fails at his first attempt to kill Meryem, and squats in shame, I felt sorry for him. That is powerful filmmaking. Murat Han is completely natural in the role. You never catch him acting. He just is Cemal.
Ozgu Namal, as Meryem, gives an equally miraculous performance. Again, I felt, when watching this, as if I were watching real people. I've lived in pre-modern, traditional villages, and Namal and the other actors expertly capture the cringing, downtrodden posture that subservient people assume in the presence of their superiors in the village hierarchy. Men like Cemal cast their eyes down and say "Yes, sir," when ordered around by the village headman; girls like Meryem, with no status whatsoever, cringe at all times, scuttling through life, struggling to assure their continued existence by continuously pleasing those above them – and those above them include everyone. Meryem cringes and looks away and plasters herself to a train seat when handing Cemal a pita bread sandwich she has made for him; he must eat and be satisfied before she can eat. Even when she gets a fish bone stuck in her throat her hands flutter and her eyes grow wide with anxiety as Cemal tries to keep her from choking – ironic given that his job is to kill her. She doesn't want to demand too much. Her body language says, "Don't worry; I'll just choke to death. I don't want to be a bother." Namal conveys the complex inner life of a girl who has been denied any identity or individuality by her crushing, loveless surroundings. In one scene, she talks about her relationship with her grandmother, and it is so poignant only a stonehearted filmgoer could avoid crying.
But Turkey is not just traditional villages; it also has a coast where Western tourists and modernized Turks lounge in bikinis. Cemal and Meryem encounter Irfan (Talat Bulut), a renegade professor cruising the coast in his yacht. Irfan smiles and enjoys life; his hair is snowy white. He is bright opposite to brooding, dark, Cemal. But Irfan's life isn't perfect, either. He doesn't quite know how to fit his modern, sunny mentality into traditional Turkish culture.
All scenes, even lighthearted ones, are shadowed by menace. The law is ironclad: Meryem must be killed by a member of her family. She has been raped; she is "tainted," as Cemal puts it. There is a knife, a gun, a pair of strangling hands, hiding around every corner of every shot, even those on the professor's yacht. You know that no matter how far Meryem gets from her village, she is not going to find safety within the confines of this world, or this movie.
Because this film caused me to care so much about Cemal, Meryem, and Irfan, I struggled with the questions they faced. How can a raped girl survive in a traditional Muslim village? If she escapes her village, where can she make a life for herself? Can she, ever? Can a girl who has been trained to cringe and serve and hide behind her veil ever fit in with Westernized Turkish girls, who, clad only in bikinis, visit Prof. Irfan's yacht? And what about Cemal? Will he always only be a man who responds with frightening rage when asked to set a table because that is "women's work," who feels duty-bound to beat down any woman who questions his absolute, masculine authority? And who is to say which world is better, the village, with its tradition, or the professor's world, where he does seem truly without anchors?