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.
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.
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]