A highly developed sense of absurdity is the hallmark of celebrated Turkish helmer Sinan Cetin’s comedies, from “Berlin in Berlin” (where, due to laws of hospitality, a German is only safe under the roof of the Turkish family of the man he’s killed) to “Propaganda” (where realignment of the Turkish/Syrian border unnaturally splits a town down the middle). An even stronger combo of bathos and desperation reigns in “Sergeant Shakespeare,” an over-the-top comic meller that stages a grotesquely Disneyish “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” against a jailhouse backdrop of brutality and oppression. Defiantly ethnic in tone and idiom, pic, despite wonderfully edgy theatricality, is unlikely to score Stateside, where Turkish cinema remains largely unknown.
When his daughter Su (Pelin Batu) becomes seriously ill during a school rehearsal for “Snow White,” police sergeant Cemil (Turkish screen legend Kadir Inanir) commandeers the entire police station and most of its inmates for an inhouse production of the fairy tale, hoping to keep his child alive by winning a television competition for amateur troupes. After “auditioning” paddy-wagons full of potential players, the production, directed by Tatu (Okan Bayulgen), a drug dealer who swears he was once a juvenile celebrity, gets under way.
A glue-sniffing bum is detoxed for the role of Prince Charming, while street kids impersonate the dwarfs. A regal hooker (screen diva Mujde Ar) who auditions by faking an orgasm is cast as the queen. When the hooker breaks a leg (literally), the role is undertaken in drag by a lovelorn gangster (singer-actor Ozkan Ugur). In the film’s tearjerker climax, Cemil himself assays the queen, the once-villainous role gaining heroic Pagliacci-like proportions in its transparently transvestite progression.
Meanwhile, the police state oppresses on, largely unaffected by the make-believe woodland enclave in its midst. Cemil, anxious to maintain the totalitarian standards imposed by his temporarily hospitalized captain, slaps around an innocent waiter, and only changes his brutal ways when his daughter is in sight. Enormous tension is created as the camera simultaneously follows a prisoner dragged in and brutalized in the background while Snow White accepts her poisoned apple in the foreground. A U.N. delegation, come to investigate police brutality, leaves enchanted with Turkey’s innovative “drama rehabilitation” program.
But Su’s envious classmates denounce the enterprise, phoning authorities to say the jail has been overtaken by criminals. Rumor soon escalates into reports of terrorists taking over the television station. As hundreds of soldiers, armed to the teeth, surround and invade the studio, public opinion, as represented by both the live and the larger broadcast audience, demands the play go on.
While rehearsals occasion farcically inappropriate ad-libbing (Snow White asking Prince Charming if he receives Social Security), the actual performance of the play solicits heartfelt extemporaneous outpourings — confessions of love between Cemil and the warm-hearted hooker, tenderness between Cemil and his dying daughter, plus a reprise of Tatu’s show-stopping turn as a child star when an audience member unexpectedly recognizes him crouched down with the tots as a substitute dwarf. The play ends with Su’s onstage death, Prince Charming’s kiss unable to rouse her.
Cetin deftly balances sentimentality with slapstick and vice-versa, the film propelled forward with dazzling inventiveness from first frame to last. Thesping is magnificent, Ar’s whore is immensely appealing, and Inanir’s Shakespearean sergeant fervidly intense.
Footlight-bright lensing by Kamil Cetin never becomes gaudy, fabricating subtly rendered levels of artifice, while Omer Ozgur’s music switches effortlessly back and forth between light and dark.