Current Turkish modern cinema falls under two main categories: big, mainstream entertainments of intrinsic nationalism that closely follow the Hollywood model, such as “Valley of the Wolves and “The White Angel, and independent arthouse pictures, represented by internationally acclaimed filmmakers Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Semih Kaplanoglu and Semih Kaplanoglu.
None of the numerous Turkish films I’ve seen of late could have prepared me for Çagan Irmak’s “Ulak (The Messenger), a rousing, offbeat allegory about the power of storytelling, imagination, and the eternal yearning for a savior. The film is currently competing in the International Competition for Feature Films.
Set in an unidentifiable era that appears to be in the Middle Ages, the film tells the story of a mysterious wandering storyteller. Roaming from one village to another, the storyteller recounts one particular story about a postman/messenger who, while heading for a distant village for an assignment, gets haunted by a ghost of a man murdered by the village villain. The messenger is transformed into an avenging angel, punishing the wicked and delivering the village inhabitants from their sufferings.
The storyteller’s latest stop is a small village controlled by brute tyrants. The oppressed townsfolk are automatically drawn to him; finding solace and escape in his story that gradually turns into inspiration.
The village’s adults are struggling with their repressed dreams while the youngsters’ innocence has been robbed by their domineering, callous parents. Among these characters is a young man, the son of a café owner, prevented from marrying a divorcee who herself is a victim of forced marriage; an old sterile lady standing up to the village’s prostitute who forces her daughter to follow her path; a young kid physically abused by his malicious drug dealer father; and a young girl exploited by her mother for heavy labor.
The storyteller instructs his audience to forge the faces of the characters from their surroundings, and thus, each character instantly, perhaps instinctively, puts the faces of their oppressors in place of the story’s baddies. The children swiftly start to believe that the messenger, the hero of the story, might be real.
The village’s unlawful rulers begin to sense the influence of the storyteller and the changes he helped to instigate and they eventually conspire to evict him from the village. Before he leaves, the storyteller reveals the truth behind his story, a secret that further blurs the line separating fiction from reality.
“The Messenger is heavily abundant with both Islamic and Christian symbolism, from the unexplained force compelling a young man to write a “magic book to the resurrection of a deceased character after three days.
Irmak’s suggesting that the need for a savior is a universal theme, unbound to a particular culture or religion. The basic foundations of religion are rooted inside that one story that might not seem plausible. For these characters though, and millions of other people living under similar conditions around the world, their entire existence, their raison d’être, is chained to that one story.
The religious themes Irmak explores are ingrained in the fabric of a beautifully-told, well-constructed story, presented with a subtle, yet direct, approach that never feels preachy, naïve or superior.
On a different level though, and without spoiling anything, “The Messenger is a study of grief, loss and hope found in the tales writers create to cope with their bereavement.
The one element the film lacks is more tension. The story’s antagonists don’t simply appear iniquitous enough. You definitely sympathize with the characters, cheer for their triumph, but the impact left by the emotionally charged ending could’ve been much greater had they been subjected to sterner anguish.
“The Messenger is a stirring story of hope and perseverance. Despite the emphasis on divine justice, Irmak stresses that it’s up to each and every individual to fight the good cause, all they really need is something to believe in.