The themes of Reha Erdem’s Kosmos will be much recognisable to devotees of the transcendentalist-spiritual sector of world cinema, yet it is perhaps more interesting for granting us another timely cinematic look at Turkey, for a film-clientele newly enamoured with the regional visions of Nuri Bilge Ceylan. From a non-native perspective we might term the films of Ceylan, Erdem and, the recently deceased, Seyfi Teoman as ‘ethnographic‘, in that they clearly and rigorously unveil their distant cultures, which are still rooted in pastoral traditions, with what appears as veracity.
In a media environment where it’s easier than ever to insulate ourselves from what we deem marginal to our interests, foreign cinema can have a tangible, educative effect on western audiences, making light our assumptions and our prejudices. This transaction doesn’t have to resemble a straight history lesson; for me, seeing a film representing another culture with intelligence can be as transportive as actually visiting it. However matter-of-fact such films may appear for their domestic audience, filmmakers bringing their work to the international stage operate to this audience as geographers and anthropologists as much as storytellers.
Ceylan’s films to date seem to exist in something approaching the real world, populated as they are by amateur actors, as well as his friends and associates. His superb 2006 film Climates even stars himself and his wife as fictionalised versions of themselves, documenting a painful impasse in their relationship highlighted by geographical separation and contrast. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a highly atmospheric police procedural recounting a long night’s journey into the day, examining a convict leading a police troupe to his murdered victim buried in the Anatolian steppes.
Erdem, for his difference, sidesteps Ceylan’s carefully drawn characters and storytelling etiquette, operating in what Sight & Sound’s Trevor Johnston describes as a ‘cyclical manner, building up over time‘; by this Johnston means that his characters develop through specific repetitive behaviours, and that his films find dramatic release in pushing these repetitions, often between a whole ensemble of characters, to the limit. What Johnston doesn’t probe in his recent review of Kosmos is its flirting with intimations of magical realism and science fiction, although ironically, it is through these far-flung techniques that Erdem can say as something equally as enduring as Ceylan about Turkey and its outer regions.
Kosmos follows an unnamed man, wordless and almost beast-like in his manner, who arrives upon a similarly unnamed Turkish town bordered with Armenia. This man, who eventually christens himself Kosmos after a spontaneous liaison with a beautiful schoolteacher, has Christ-like attributes: in his first interaction with the townsfolk he saves a drowning boy in an icy stream, and rumours of his mythical healing powers bring the chaste and prudent town community lining up outside his lodgings. Yet he can only observably speak in gnomic biblical phrases, and operates as a kind of petty thief, ransacking the local pharmacies for painkillers (this is set in the present day, however indeterminate the landscape might seem). And in an almost pathetic contrast to his bizarre and savant-like acts (without ignoring the town’s equally bizarre responses to them), he appears only to subsist on tea and brown sugar lumps, guzzled down with flagrant disregard for modern table manners, his mouth halfway submerged in the teacup. Erdem shoots the action, particularly the dialogue scenes, as if he’s refining each communication down to its most basic elements, with most exchanges cutting away as soon as their initial purpose has been established.
Erdem also echoes Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó in its evocation of a dying rural environment veering towards an apocalyptic conclusion, but a shrewder comparison would be Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which has greater implications for the film’s depiction of Turkey as a place. Among the increasingly numerous plot threads Kosmos cycles through are whispers that the local authorities will let down a security wall effectively ghettoising the town from the passageway into Eastern Europe; this will supposedly bring workers and more settlers in to populate the streets and factories that are eerily, neglectfully silent. Punctuating a fevered and tense town meeting also reminiscent of Sátántangó is a crash of a satellite orbiting Earth just outside the town’s urban centre, which Kosmos gallops outside to leer at, to what end being inconclusive. This film suffers slightly by failing to make a virtue of its ambiguity – Erdem can’t quite summon the uncanny mystery of his influences – but like Stalker, Kosmos expands upon the imagery of its stunning and poetic landscape to awaken memories and echoes of the Iron Curtain and the Gulag, or scientific catastrophes such as the Chernobyl disaster.
If Ceylan photographs Turkey as if he was trying to unearth the folklore from its modernity, Erdem’s vision centres parts of the country as surfaces of a wholly alien environment. It is this crucial element of Kosmos that most contributes to its inordinately mystic atmosphere, and one that creates an uncomfortable journey for the viewer. Despite this, Erdem’s tactile, immersive and suggestive world fashioned in Kosmos sees these genuine suggestions of otherworldliness and of another time as finely entwined within the inherent poetry and grace of the real landscape of Turkey, an art that typifies its principal filmmakers of today.