Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay’s Oray opens with a long monologue from a man (Zejhun Demirov) who says he was a captive until he found Islam. Whom is he talking to? We don’t see. The camera stays on this man, his words. “Either Islam or nothing. Either heaven or hell.” The speaker turns out to be Oray, a resident of Hagen, Germany. He’s married to Burcu (Deniz Orta), who doesn’t appear to be as religious. Through their half-open bedroom door, we see him kneeling and praying, while she’s engrossed in her smartphone. This doesn’t seem to come between them, though. They are in love. In lust, too. And then, after an argument that sees him marching out of their home, he calls her. She keeps hanging up. In a fit of rage, he utters these words to her voicemail: “Talaq, talaq, talaq.”
Seen one way, these are just words. We all say things we don’t mean, like… I’m going to kill you. But to Oray, this is something his religion is very clear about. He checks with a friend, who checks with the Imam. He is told that he will have to be away from Burcu for three months, during which time they will be “haram” to each other. He moves to Cologne, and stays with fellow-Turks. (These are the men, the “brothers”, he was addressing at the beginning of the film.) At first, Oray is satisfied he is doing the right thing. He convinces himself that he just said the word once: “Talaq”. That warrants only this separation, not a divorce. But soon, his conscience starts gnawing at him. An exasperated friend tells him, “You love Burcu. She loves you. How can God keep two lovers apart?” But Oray knows what he did. He knows how many times he said those words. He knows what it means.
At first, I was appalled at how Burcu is sidelined — not just by Oray, but also by the film. (The Imam wants to know if she had her period when Oray uttered those fateful words.) She protests when Oray leaves, and she refuses to move to Cologne — otherwise, she stays in the margins. But slowly, it becomes apparent that her exclusion is deliberate. This is a thoroughly disturbing examination of men who behave in ways that are seemingly at odds with their innate nature — due to their beliefs, and the beliefs of those around them. Another friend tells Oray, “We have to survive as a community, especially in Germany. Who do we have but fellow Muslims?” It’s as though the alienation has made them more “Muslim”, and I thought about how some NRIs seem more “Hindu” to me than many of us are, in the way they hold onto festivals and traditions. As much as I felt for Burcu, I felt for Oray, too.
At first, Denis Côté’s Répertoire des villes disparues (Ghost Town Anthology) seems to be shaping into a mournful family drama. We are in an icy village outside Quebec, and 21-year-old Simon is found dead in a car crash. At the funeral, a well-wisher whispers to Simon’s brother Jimmy (Robert Naylor), “You need a girlfriend to get through moments like this.” Their mother (Josee Deschenes) sits by the Christmas tree, insisting that Simon did not commit suicide. The father (Jean-Michel Anctil), meanwhile, just takes off, saying he will be back. He just needs to sort out his life. But slowly — one might even say “eerily” — the tone changes. Adele (Larissa Corriveau), a neighbour, seems to have glimpsed an intruder in her house. Or is that a… ghost? Who were those children who raced towards Simon’s car, wearing Halloween-like masks?
This is a film that takes a while to cohere, but the pieces come together beautifully in the mind. Amidst the apparent genre tropes — you may think of zombie movies, with a wobbly camera and grainy 16mm images — there is the undercurrent of present-day politics. This village, a small community of about 200, is defiantly anti-outsider. But if people keep dying or leaving (there are no jobs), and if outsiders aren’t allowed to enter, won’t this become the “ghost town” of its title? Is the film a commentary on sparsely populated Canada? Is the Muslim woman who comes to help (but is ordered to leave the village) the ultimate “outsider”? Côté doesn’t do anything as vulgar as offer a neat message. He simply plays with the meaning of the title: “ghost town” becomes a “town of ghosts.” If this continues, the apparitions will soon outnumber the actual (living) people.
I had my misgivings even while reading the synopsis for Mr. Jones, directed by the venerable Agnieszka Holland. The story — set in 1933, and about a Welsh journalist who exposed Stalin’s agricultural policies, due to which millions died — gives off the whiff of an Oscar-baiting “prestige biopic”, and the utterly conventional opening scenes were exactly what I feared. After about thirty minutes, I walked out. I looked at the reviews the next day to see if I had made a mistake. IndieWire awarded the film a C, and said, “It’s a clumsy start for a film that never really finds its footing…” Hollywood Reporter said, “A mighty drama jammed inside one that’s overstuffed and frustrating.” Phew! It’s not that I always agree with reviews. But after so many years, you develop a sixth sense about these things. I’m going to give Mr. Jones another chance when it shows up on a streaming platform, but I will be very surprised if I end up really liking it.