‘Red Istanbul’ (‘Istanbul Kirmizisi’): Film Review

A business trip turns into a trip down memory lane for a Turkish ex-pat writer in ‘Red Istanbul,’ Ferzan Ozpetek’s first film set in Turkey in 18 years.

While we wait for Turkish films to catch up to the new political status quo after the failed coup against the Erdogan government last July, those shot just before the attempted coup risk seeming like old news. Poised on the cusp, Ferzan Ozpetek’s Red Istanbul describes a melancholy city on the Bosphorus laden with poignant memories like an over-decorated Christmas tree. The story is based on the director’s own novel about a famous Turkish filmmaker who vanishes into thin air one day, leaving his writer friend stranded in Istanbul. Though politics are barely touched on, a sense of underlying tension darkly hints at the troubles to come in a country on the verge of accelerated change.

The Italy-Turkey co-production is the first film that the Italian-based Ozpetek has shot in his native Turkey since his directing debut Steam: The Turkish Bath and its follow-up, Harem Suaré. Looking at the city through the eyes of an ex-pat who has returned after a 20-year absence, the pic is strewn with smile-worthy autobiographical elements. But all in all, it’s a welcome change from a string of inconsequential Italian comedies and, despite some dramatic inertness, it’s a film that could get the helmer’s career back on an international track. If anything, it recalls the far more atmospheric movie that Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk directed last year, Innocence of Memories, which was also about a man obsessed with a woman and haunted by his past.

The Bottom Line

A quiet, laid-back relationship film set in a changing city.

Just as in Antonioni’s classic L’Avventura, the audience is thrown a red herring in the opening scenes as to the identity of the main character; here the lively, manipulative gay director Deniz (played quite enigmatically by Nejat Isler of Winter Sleep) is at first tagged as the film’s protag. He’s much more entertaining than the polite, highly composed writer Orhan (Halit Ergenc) who turns up in Istanbul to help him with his new book. But when, after a flashy party in a residential tower, Deniz goes missing, Orhan steps up to the plate.

Those yearning for a thriller had better watch Skyfall. This is a quiet, laid-back film about intellectuals reflecting on their relationships, which happen to be tinged with a mystery. Where is Deniz, anyway? He isn’t in the morgue. Even his mother and immediate family believe he may walk through the door any minute — he’s done a disappearing act before. But Orhan, who may have been the last to see him, becomes a prisoner in his former country. His life with his friend’s family in their magnificent house on the waterfront turns into a kind of limbo, emphasized in cinematographer Gian Luigi Corticelli’s languid, shadowy interiors where time stands still and the impressive but unsettling specter of a suspension bridge across the Bosphorus that appears in the background of every patio shot.

Since Orhan can’t work without Deniz and the police won’t allow him to fly back to his life in London, he’s left to get reacquainted with Istanbul, a city he left 20 years earlier in the wake of a terrible tragedy. He meets Deniz’s two closest friends, the stunning sphinx Neval (Tuba Buyukustun), whom he falls for at first sight, and the even more complicated Yusuf (Mehmet Gunsur), Deniz’s sometimes lover. Trailing after them gives him a view of Istanbul as a rich, gracious city on the water where new high-rises tower over ancient mosques, and the muezzin’s call to prayer is almost drowned out by the hum of traffic and machines. Surprisingly little is seen of famous streets and landmarks and even less of crowds, possibly because of shooting restrictions.

Leading a cast of top Turkish actors, Ergenc (My Father and My Son) projects an arresting gravitas behind his blue eyes and thinning hair, though he hardly seems like the ladykiller that everyone takes him for. In a well-handled tragicomic dinner scene, for instance, Deniz’s two aging aunts make no bones about how attractive they find him — though they also think he may be a serial killer. In the end, even the lovely Neval finds him irresistible, leading to one of the film’s finest scenes in which they carefully open up and exchange their feelings.

Stage actress Cigdem Selisik Onat has a warm, intelligent presence as Deniz’s aristocratic, overprotective mother who gradually switches her confidences to Orhan. Ozpetek regular Serra Yilmaz brightens her brief scenes as the housekeeper with barbed irony and an intimidating glower.

Deniz Gokturk Kobanbay’s production design puts modern Turkish art on generous display in homes, museums and rooftop statue gardens. This is not working-class Turkey, but a privileged sector with taste and a cosmopolitan lifestyle. There is a brief flash on some Kurdish refugees who have lost their home, and a glimpse of the weekly protest by the “Saturday mothers” who hold up photographs of their loved ones, missing since the 1980s and 1990s in forced disappearances and political murders. But these feel like add-ons, not part of the film’s fabric.

A bold selection of Turkish pop songs makes a nice contrast to Giuliano Taviani and Carmelo Travia’s compelling score, evoking myth and memory.

Production companies: R&C Produzioni, Faros Film, in association with Rai Cinema, BKM, Imaj
Cast: Halit Ergenc, Nejat Isler, Mehmet Gunsur, Cigdem Selisik Onat, Tuba Buyukustun, Serra Yilmaz, Zerrin Tekindor, Ayten Gokcer, Ipek Bilgin
Director: Ferzan Ozpetek
Screenwriters: Gianni Romoli, Ferzan Ozpetek, Valia Santella based on Ozpetek’s novel
Producers: Gianni Romoli, Tilde Corsi, Necati Akpinarm, Zumrut Arol Bekce, Muge Kolat
Executive producers: Pelin Ekinci Kaya 
Director of photography: Gian Filippo Corticelli
Production designer: Deniz Gokturk Kobanbay
Costume designer: Funda Buyuktunalioglu
Editor: Patrizio Marone
Music: Giuliano Taviani, Carmelo Travia
Casting director: Tuba Sokmen Gulmez

115 minutes