Melodrama isn’t just a genre made famous by names like Douglas Sirk. Throughout the world there are examples of this visceral and emotionally heightened genre of film, and yet, as with most melodramas, few foreign examples ever get the respect that they so richly deserve. However, one film has broken that trend thanks to Criterion’s brand new World Cinema Project, and is arguably one of the most entrancing and politically charged melodramas you’re likely ever going to lay eyes upon.
Entitled Dry Summer, this award-winning Turkish melodrama, arguably one of the most important and influential films from this early portion of Turkish cinema history (particularly given its momentous Golden Bear victory at the 1964 Berlin Film Festival), follows quite the tale. The picture introduces us to a tobacco farmer named Osman (Erol Tas), a power-hungry farmer hell bent on building a dam to stop water from heading downhill to his neighbors and their crops. The melodrama amps up when his brother and his bride come into the picture, with a love triangle forming when the man’s brother heads to prison. One of the more inventive melodramas of this time period aesthetically, this unsung masterpiece of world cinema is yet another gem found within a box set, released here by Criterion, filled with nothing but diamonds found from the world cinema rough.
The first thing one will notice about the picture is its intensely stylized aesthetic. A former critic himself, director Metin Erksan’s stylistic hand here is percussive and full of life. Paired up with a startlingly anachronistic score from Ahmet Yamac, the film features some truly powerful black and white photography, and some lyrically sweeping direction. As much a melodrama narratively as it is aesthetically, the film carries with it both a visceral sense of the violence of life while also painting an oddly realist portrait of rural Turkish life. With an opening sequence introducing us to the farmer that is Osman, the film lulls us into believing that this is set to be a Satyajit Ray-esque portrait of rural human life, but instead turns that stylistic choice on its head instead blending it with brutal sequences of violence (there is a scene here of a gang of people whipping our lead that is tough to sit through) and a narrative so steeped in obsession (and as Martin Scorsese points out in an introduction to the film on this release), passion, that it becomes a definitive neo-realist melodrama from an unsung portion of world cinema history.
The performances here, while admittedly a tad over the top, are uniformly great. Erol Tas is a perfect fit for this type of obsessive lead role, and his relationship with the pair of Bahar (Hulya Kocyigit) and Hasan, his brother (Ulvi Dogan), feels vital and palpable. A film so heavily based in the realm of obsession, Tas’ performance is tonally perfect here, especially as the romance becomes a greater and greater aspect of the narrative. The actual core relationship, between Bahar and Hasan, is full of such fire and energy that the heartbreak felt when the latter heads to prison is so raw and emotionally resonant, and when paired with the lusciously shot visuals, as well as the social and political commentary, the film becomes a whirlwind of emotion and real intellectual discussion.
Erksan, a former scholar-turned-critic-turned-filmmaker, is the film’s biggest star, however. Ostensibly about the privatization of property, the film is not only a great introduction to a filmmaker’s work, but also a calling card for a director who never seemed able to separate himself from cultural and political debates and discussions. Coming out of a social realist movement in Turkish cinema following a military coup, the film is both a densely stylized melodrama that just so happens to bring with it a deeply resonant discussion of a political problem that plagued Erksan’s homeland. One will also notice Erksan’s love for his home’s land. By this I mean that the film, a picture where water plays a large part, is so evocatively shot that the setting itself becomes an unforgettable player. Be it the opening shots of our lead riding through a village, or of our two love birds walking through tall brush, the film is in love with, and very much about, Erksan’s native Turkey. Like any classic, the film feels as though it came from a pure compulsion found within the deepest part of Erksan’s DNA.
Released as part of Criterion’s new World Cinema Project box set, the film has never looked this great. The restoration here is a revelation, giving the film’s black and white photography a harsh contrast that it really pops off the screen. The score here become’s the biggest takeaway however, as the piercing compositions are unlike anything you’ve heard before. Scorsese gives a great introduction to the film, and Erksan is joined by director Fatih Akin for what is one of the better interview pieces found on this disc. Truly a sight to behold, this film, as posited by Akin in his interview, is as important and powerful today as it has ever been.