There isn’t much that can prepare you for the drastic second-half turn of “Araf,” an often-gorgeous drama playing in the Main Slate at the New York Film Festival. Evocative and somewhat alien in equal measure, “Araf” takes place in a withered Turkish countryside that might as well be another planet. We see the economic strife through the lava runoff that occurs in the very first shot of the film, lumbering out of a cauldron, spilling out onto the land. Though fairly mundane within the lives of the characters (one of whom is discussing sex in voiceover as the orange-red substance burns all that lies underneath it), it’s an introduction that rivals the eye-opening early shots of Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” though while it was that film’s high point, here it’s an example of a world dying while underdeveloped, neglected, managed and monitored by day laborers barely getting by on their own.
Yesim Ustaoglu’s picture centers on two attractive young people who, in another film, would be destined to fall in love. Olgun is a shaggy-haired lothario, one who pulls pranks and smiles with ease despite working around the clock in kitchens, factories, and waste sites. When not hanging out with a similarly freewheeling buddy, he relaxes in a hostile home environment, where he is greeted with a disdainful, alcoholic father who judges the boy with his sideways glances, and a mother who rarely says a word as her eyes provide what she assumes is guidance for a young boy. Olgun is no longer a child, however, even if he nurses starry-eyed excitement towards the Turkish version of “Deal or No Deal,” his sole hope for escaping their town.
Olgun is also making eyes at the alluring Zehra -- with her soft locks and Pan-Asian features, she could be a model. Instead, she slaps food onto dishes for what we’re to assume are also day laborers taking a break in their schedules, using her free time to crash with an older, sympathetic friend who fears for the young girl’s innocence. A taciturn, bearded man soon enters Zehra’s life, and it’s easy to understand -- she’s drawn to him, not necessarily by his physical attractiveness (he is solemn and aged, nursing gray beard hairs as he cradles prayer beads in his hand), but because he has a truck. He travels in and out of town for work, and though he is constantly returning, she views his journeys as the closest thing to an escape. Olgun’s dreams of “Deal or No Deal,” endearing as she finds them, might as well be a pitch to travel to the stone age compared to the relative stability this mystery man offers.
Again, Ustaoglu carefully observes character dynamics by omitting the moments in which they talk -- there’s a haunting distance to the early scenes with Zehra and her suitor. They spend the night together in separate beds, though her innocent silence and his stern shyness suggest something may have happened. Because she is often hesitant to smile, and because she’s not entirely smitten with this man, the kneejerk impulse is to assume something illicit and upsetting occurred between the two, and she’s exhibiting a Stockholm response in lieu of the dimensionless world she regularly inhabits.
“Araf” is delicately observed, noticing the breaks in conversation as the moments when these characters challenge each other to the most extreme extent, their dreams, all modest, colliding in a political conflict between what can be considered realistic and what can't. Olgun uses a date as a chance to muse about his chances on “Deal Or No Deal,” which he claims will be an inevitable victory simply based on his own innate skill, suggesting these shows create the illusion of self-determination in lieu of blind luck, the implicit possibility that one may will themselves into cash simply by desire and guile. It’s a delusion borne from his only comparison point -- to not be a deplorable alcoholic like his father must immediately equate with success. Furthermore, Zehra’s initial third-act humanism is snuffed out by the economic and social realities that surround her, extinguishing a brief bout of idealism that, in practice, would harm everyone around her.
The film sways in a certain direction by applying a modified version of Chekov’s Law, when loaded guns are introduced in the film’s second act, one literal and the other figurative. While both plot strands don’t escalate in predictable manners, they still suddenly narrow the story potential of “Araf” to an extreme degree that creates an inevitability based in corruption, of the families that occupy the film’s world, the sideways glances and smiles warmly shared by a few characters, and the simplicity of youth giving way to an adulthood of which neither character shows the appropriate poise. “Araf” is darkly shaded, no doubt, but the first half allows for moments where bright humanism shines through, and the story seems to yield to infinite possibilities. The arrival of these two very real but movie-friendly contrivances significantly diminish the good will built up over the course of what is often a challenging, gorgeous film.
Worth mentioning: “Araf” is not a violent or explicit film by any stretch of the imagination, but the third act features a moment of disquieting emotional violence sure to test even the most weathered film festival attendant. Without revealing too much, it’s both sickening in its plausibility and, within the moment, the film’s sudden right turn for the sake of a Grindhouse-worthy gut-punch that punctuates one storyline in a way that lingers long after the film is over. “Araf,” as well-intentioned and moving as it tends to be, attempts to recover from that moment much like one of its characters, who nonchalantly walks away from a stomach-turning bloodbath of a moment that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a Troma film. It can’t, simply because no film could. To say this scene, true to its character and the general narrative, is unnecessary and goes far beyond the boundaries of taste, is a question outside the pay scale of this particular critic. It’s not something that can be isolated and discussed as much as it can be perceived within the moment, palms over your eyes, mouth agape. [B]