There’s no question that the Academy Awards have gotten much stronger in the past few years. Big awards have been handed out to pictures that went against the norm — at least in comparison to what else was nominated — and while this writer wasn’t a huge fan of all of them, there’s no question about them being much different than what the Academy used to go for (“Slumdog Millionaire” was, at least in its style — we won’t instigate an argument about the overly moving fairytale narrative right now). Unfortunately that kind of forward thinking mentality has yet to hit the Foreign Oscars category, and even though some really good flicks have made the short list (this year included), the powerful few tend to pick the most manipulative, Hollywood-ish picture possible. Sometimes they click and sometimes they don’t. Many, including some of the staff, loved last year’s sentimental “The Secret In Their Eyes,” whereas most could barely stomach the previous winner “Departures.” Then there are ones that don’t make it at all, ones so manipulative and forced it almost seems like they were manufactured solely to demand recognition by the awards committee. Germany’s “When We Leave” is that kind of movie, one that has its heart in the right place but is hampered by juvenile direction.
Umay (Sibel Kekilli) has found herself stuck in an impossible marriage with an unrelenting, cold man. It all started at one fateful supper where Umay’s son, Cem, got a little too big for his britches and said some rather fresh things. Kemal, father and husband, rushes after the boy for a proper spanking, one that sends the mother after him and leads to her crying on the floor. Night time only brings dispassionate sex, with her husband completely unaware of her feelings (clue: she’s lying stiff and avoiding eye contact during intercourse) and their child sleeping in the corner much too soundly. If actor-director Feo Aladag is to be given credit for anything, it’s that she made it very clear from the start that she was making a broad melodrama with about as much substance and subtlety in her content as a PSA.
With son in tow, the battered woman escapes to her parents’ house. It slowly trickles out that not only will her husband not being joining her, but that she has left him for good. Her traditionally minded folks are appalled by her decision; her siblings are just happy to have her. In the meantime, she nestles into her old bed and reconnects with an old friend, but mom and dad make things plenty tense with their intent on mending their daughter’s marriage. They’re mostly worried about the dishonor she’s bringing their family due to her actions, which lead to some yelling and slapping (an unfortunate, pathetic reoccurring action) and the departure of Umay and Cem from the house. Now living in a closed-off facility, this newfound safety and freedom allow her to take classes and get a job at a local restaurant. Things are going great until family and husband attempt multiple kidnappings, and as Umay’s supporters drop like flies (for instance, her sister’s fiance breaks off the engagement for a brief spell because of her family’s shame), she slowly descends into a frustrated, stress-induced insanity.
It’s regrettable that this movie is such an over-the-top failure because it tackles some serious issues. How can anyone not get behind a film that advocates women’s rights and critiques the absurd, inhuman act of honor killing? Now if only Aladag could make a statement that wasn’t so ham-fisted and dour, one that properly examined the issue instead of creating an offensive and blatant Oscar bait of a movie. Almost every character in the picture merely exist to further her cause, so instead of complex insight into why Umay’s opposition think the way they do, they are portrayed as selfish and villainous (when she tells her father that she is beaten by her husband, he replies “He’s your husband.”). When they do show reasons for their actions, it’s glazey and quick — she doesn’t want to give the opposing side any screen time unless they’re being atrocious human beings.
Of course, she’s probably in the right. How can you humanize any person who would contemplate killing their flesh and blood to save the honor in their name? Then again, we’ve seen directors defy assumptions and conventions constantly, Todd Solondz concocted a layered pedophile in “Happiness” and Cristi Puiu refused to give digestible, concrete reasonings to his murderous character in “Aurora.” Sure, not every filmmaker is going to start taking cues from a “perverted” American director and a minimalist Romanian, and no one should obscure their artistic messages simply for the sake of being subtle, but when the film is executed as poorly as it is here, the subject hardly becomes a worthwhile topic of conversation or a push towards activism.
But if only it were as simple as hating the presentation of an idea. There’s plenty of other cinematic crimes here — lifeless cinematography, a contrived romantic subplot, overbearing music — which makes it even more difficult to give the film a pass for “fighting the good fight.” This miserablist chore is all too imperious with its message, sacrificing absolutely everything in order to expose an all-too-terrible thing. What we have here isn’t art, it’s a soapbox, and just as bad and ineffective as those “very special episodes” that would clog up our half-hour sitcom excursions back in the day. [D-]