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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Ferzan Özpetek | Haman (Il bagno turco/Steam: The Turkish Bath)

a change in geography

 Ferzan Özpetek, Stefano Tummolini, and Aldo Sambrell (writers, based on a story by Ferzan Özpetek), Ferzan Özpetek (director) Hamam (Il bagno turco/Steam: The Turkish Bath) / 1997, USA 1998.

Hamam, Italian-Turkish Özpetek’s directorial debut, is not near as good as several of his later films, but like most of his works, still has a great deal of charm.



     The Italians Francesco (Alessandro Gassman) and Marta (Francesca d’Aloja) are a hardworking couple, running a small design firm. Although they have once been deeply in love, their marriage is clearly floundering, as Marta announces again and again her reliance on another business partner, Paolo, with whom, we later discover, she is having an affair. But Francesco is clearly so caught up in work that he notices very little.

     Out of the blue, he receives word that his “black sheep” aunt, who early in her life ran off to live Istanbul, has died, leaving him her property. Against his inclination, he determines to travel to Istanbul to quickly sell it off so that he can get back to work.

     Arriving in the magical Turkish city, Francesco soon finds that the potential buyer is lowering her bid, and that he cannot immediately get rid of the property. Having a day or so to meander through the city, he gradually discovers the city’s beauty. An older man accosts him on the street, asking Francesco to help him to the local hamam, a Turkish bath, so that he can get some water. Once there, he invites the Italian to take a look about the place, recommending that he find time to take advantage of the ancient luxury, slowly going out of style. Francesco is somewhat appalled by the reclining male bodies, but is clearly fascinated nonetheless.

      When he later visits the property that his aunt has left him, he discovers an entire family living in the space, people who worked and cared for his aunt, including an elderly husband and wife, and their two children, Mehmet (Mehmet Günsür) and Fusan (Basak Köklüaya), male and female, both of them beautiful and both casting longing glances toward the handsome Francesco. The family, who apparently enjoy a harmony seldom seen in American family life, insist that he eat with them, and show him his aunt’s room containing her possessions, while also revealing that the building contains an old haman, now closed, in which Mehmet had once worked. Fernando reads the letters left by his aunt and sent, unread, to his own mother, explaining her love of Istanbul and her reasons for remaining there: “Here, things flow more slowly and soft."

     Francesco is intrigued by her statements and, when he discovers that the potential purchaser is also attempting to buy up the entire neighborhood in order to build a huge trade center, he bulks at selling, determining, with Mehmet’s help, to refurbish the steam bath to its original glory. The lawyer who has worked to close the sale, warns him that his decision is a mistake, that the potential buyer is “a dangerous woman,” but Francesco is not dissuaded and, with Mehmet, begins the repairs. What is also apparent through their stares is that he and Mehmet are developing a relationship.

      A call to Marta, explaining that he must stay on for while longer in Istanbul, hardly fazes her, since it frees her to continue her affair with Paolo. But a short while later, she flies to Istanbul, in part to reveal her relationship and divorce Francesco. She too is welcomed into the loving family, and is somehow affected by the food and the beauty of the city. But, although the couple share a bed, there is no sexual contact, and, one night observing that Francesco has left the room, she enters the haman to observe Mehmet and Francesco in a deep embrace.

       Obviously she must reveal her own adultery and leave, but before she can do so, men arrive at the haman door, stabbing Francesco to death—obviously killers hired by the “dangerous woman” whose exploitation of the area he has thwarted.

     Marta, in turn, having discovered another Francesco in Istanbul who did exist in Italy, has found  she was newly love with him, and willingly stays on in Istanbul to finish the project her husband had begun, perhaps turning into another woman like Francesco’s aunt, who has found a new world in which she feels at home.

     My only problem with Özpetek’s romantically dark tale is that, just as in his second 2001 feature, The Ignorant Fairies, the adulterer who crosses gender lines seems to have to die, as if it were necessary to punish the transgression. At least in the later film, the central character lives on the spirit of the small community with whom he shared his second love; in Haman, we never get to really know Mehmet or have the opportunity to perceive why Francesco, other than Memet’s beauty, has fallen in love so deeply that he has changed his sexual orientation. Even Francesco’s new-found love of Istanbul is left purposely vague, as if simply walking through the city streets he has helped to recover his life. I’m willing to take it on faith that the idyllic world into which he has suddenly landed and in which Marta later finds herself immersed, is responsible for both their conversions, but it would have been nice to have explored that idyll just a bit more deeply or, even, to have allowed their transformations to occur alongside just a few flaws. Perhaps Özpetek is suggesting that an occasional change in geography (and sexual orientation) does wonders for anyone.

Los Angeles, July 27, 2012

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