2005Director: Yilmaz Arslan
Cast: Erdal Celik, Xevat Gectan, Nuretin Celik
or those of us who collectively gasped at that moment from Cache, Yilmaz Arslan ups the brutality quotient by a factor of 2 in his 2005 feature Fratricide, depicting violence with merciless surprise amidst a socially charged climate: Germany as inadvertent host to enmity between Turkish and Kurdish refugees. But for the most part, this brutality doesn’t function as a Haneke-esque affront to audience complacency; rather, the bluntness of the imagery normalizes mayhem by placing it in a context so mundane it pushes absurd. Though the “dog eat dog” adage may have no equivalent in Arslan’s homeland, he’s lent the phrase a potent literalization, reducing a man’s life to the whim of his own pooch. Arslan’s screenplay unfortunately tends towards these sort of cheap ironies, but his direction is just cognizant enough of his characters’ individual sensitivities—sometimes playing into audience sympathies, sometimes working against them—to infuse it with some humanity.
The narrative is indeed the stuff of primetime-TV, rife with strident didn’t-see-that-coming moments, which together compose a kind of game of Death Dominoes, with the players being our Kurdish heroes—brothers Semo (Nuretin Celik) and Azad (Erdal Celik) and the latter’s naïve protégée Ibrahim (Xevat Gectan)—and a pair of Turkish thugs replete with back-up posse, all too mutually pig-headed to call it a day. In fact—and this will qualify as a spoiler, for Lost-addicts—Ibrahim’s back-story mirrors that show’s resident bad-ass Sawyer’s tortured childhood; Arslan even employs the same use of off-screen sound to limn the traumatic mayhem. The filmmaker’s drawback is a love of easy answers, which is all the more troubling given the occasional potent observation that gets thrown in the mix.
Arslan carefully distinguishes between behavior borne out of fun and bloodless instinct, which also might be the difference between giving the viewer a vicarious jolt of pleasure and a glimpse at pathology. A girl no older than 10 knows to tell an inquirer there’s no one home, no matter how blatant the lie. And Azad, in his ostensible prime, is first reticent to the taunts of hecklers, before going apeshit as soon as a wall appears between him and his enemies. These reflexes, readily righteous but covert and surreptitious, appear authentic to the refugees’ realm of experience precisely because they’re so alien to ours. They’re also too blatantly insecure to be covert ploys for audience pity; we’re less in thrall to Azad’s victimization than baffled by his do-nothing-then-do-everything approach.
A dynamic between values and brute force is constant: the former informs use of the latter, which in turn dilutes the strength of the former. There’s something richly paradoxical about this pattern, particularly in the case of the Turkish thug cast out of his family for trying to defend their honor, and if the film suffers from a major weakness it’s an inability to fully explore this thematic crux. Where Arslan would have done well to imbricate the trickier identity issues of his characters—Ibrahim’s experience with sexual abuse, Azad’s trepidation, or the Turk’s devotion to his brother—with their bellicose methods, he opts for a tidier “War Is War” message, with some intriguingly rough edges.
Thankfully, despite Ibrahim’s tender age, his narration is free of Wonder Years-style editorializing, instead underscoring the mentality Arslan critiques. “Death is the only faithful compensation on this earth,” Ibrahim recalls his father telling him before he moved to Germany. “He helped me to see,” the boy assures us as we watch his expressionless face doused in goat’s blood. This borderline-transcendentalism doesn’t confirm the despondency of the film’s title, but rather creates a dialogue with it. If one death avenges another, is the first responsible for precipitating the second—an indirect means of “fratricide”—or does the former lend the latter meaning? Given the film’s final image, Arslan denounces Ibrahim the ideological zealot, but embraces Ibrahim the emotionally crippled little boy, if only by prepping the audience for identification with the latter—which he’ll grow into is left up for speculation.
Fratricide is currently playing in limited release.