While Old World Italy often is the idealized setting for buttoned-up Northern Europeans to go south and unleash their repressed emotions, few films provide Italians with similar release. In “The Turkish Bath — Hamam,” an uptight careerist leaves Italy to discover warmth, sexuality and even a spiritual side in Istanbul. Told with delicacy and assured story sense by first-time director Ferzan Ozpetek, the drama initially appears headed in predictable directions, but veers off on several unexpected turns. Enterprising arthouse distribs may follow.
Francesco (Alessandro Gassman) and Marta (Francesca d’Aloja) run an interior design firm in Rome, which flourishes while their marriage flounders from mutual intolerance. Having inherited property in Turkey from his almost forgotten Aunt Anita, Francesco goes to Istanbul to oversee the sale. Once there, he learns the property is actually one of the last surviving hamam (traditional Turkish baths) that are slowly disappearing from the city.
Francesco initially remains aloof when transplanted into the slow-moving, villagey surroundings. Delays in the sale, and its handling by louche lawyer Zozo (Zozo Toledo), only add to his frustration. But when he is taken in by the family employed to run the hamam, he gradually loosens up.
The kindness of Osman and Perran (Halil Ergun and Serif Sezer, from Yilmaz Guney’s 1982 milestone, “Yol”); their daughter, Fusun (Basak Koklukaya); and son, Mehmet (Mehmet Gunsur) allows him to rediscover a sense of family. The screenplay implants the idea of impending romance with Fusun before gently introducing a blossoming attraction between Francesco and handsome Mehmet.
Francesco stays on to restore the rundown baths, hedging about his plans when questioned by Marta. Having resolved to confess her long-term relationship with their business partner and end the marriage, Marta pays a surprise visit to Istanbul, where the atmosphere softens her brittle nature. Nonetheless, she reacts venomously upon discovering Francesco’s steamy tryst with Mehmet.
A former assistant to Massimo Troisi, Ricky Tognazzi and Marco Risi, Ozpetek, a Turk, has spent the past 20 years in Italy, lending authority to his observations here on the meeting of the two cultures. The film’s most persuasive point, conveyed in both dramatic and mildly amusing terms, is how the embracing not only of cultural differences but also of the divisive lines of class and sexuality can facilitate personal growth.
Up to now used mainly in uninspired comedy roles, Gassman (son of veteran thesp Vittorio Gassman) here displays more depth as an actor, making a fluid, believable process of his character’s about-face. In similar style, d’Aloja gradually modulates Marta’s hard edges into a more sympathetic side. As a rather decadent Italian expat who catches on to the new romantic configuration, Carlo Cecchi creates a subtle bridge between the two cultures. Turkish cast members are engaging presences.
The small-scale production is gracefully shot by Pasquale Mari. Mauro Bonanni’s brisk editing and a driving, drum-laden score combining Turkish sounds with a more generic Mediterranean flavor keep the engrossing story moving at the right speed.