A richly textured, thoughtful exploration of the hypocrisies inherent when fundamentalists engage in commercial ventures, “A Man’s Fear of God” reps a strong new voice in Turkish cinema. Focusing on a simple man whose administrative job within an Islamic sect sets him spinning adrift from his previously unquestioned moral compass, pic benefits from a stand-out central perf and a finely tuned script (supervised by Fatih Akin, whose Corazon Intl. co-produced) that refuses to condescend to anyone. Helmer Ozer Kiziltan’s bigscreen debut deservedly bagged the lion’s share of prizes at Antalya’s national fest; awards are possible off-shore as well.
Muharrem (the superb Erkan Can) is a man of few needs, his life centering on his religion and his job for sack merchant Ali (Settar Tanriogen). His outlook is as limited as his wardrobe, so it comes as a shock when the leader of his religious sect, the Sheik (Meray Ulgen), asks him to become the rent collector for the sect’s property-rich seminary.
Muharrem’s lack of ambition and worldliness is precisely why he’s been chosen. The Sheik and his right-hand man Rauf (Guven Kirac) “suggest” Ali give Muharrem afternoons off so he can collect rents and see to repairs on the many properties the sect owns throughout Istanbul.
It is also “suggested” that Muharrem move into the seminary’s building, where he’s given suits, a cell phone, and all the accoutrements of a businessman, even a car and driver: “You must reflect the wisdom and the wealth of the Sheik and of the order,” Rauf explains. Fish-out-of-water isn’t the half of it.
As he adjusts to his new role, Muharrem visibly changes. Whereas before he lived in a timeless world that could equally be 1926 or 2006, now he confidently strides into shopping malls and ultra-modern offices. When his basic goodness tells him to allow a poor family to skip their rent for a month, the Sheik says this might prevent a student from coming to the seminary.
Increasingly confused and plagued by “sinful” recurring wet dreams, Muharrem’s previously black-and-white existence becomes filled not just with temptation, but with sophistical debates wrapped in opaque religious finery.
In a world currently extra-sensitive to all treatments of Muslim subjects, it should be added that Kiziltan is clearly criticizing a particular strain of fundamentalism that uses a moral sleight-of-hand to reconcile spiritual teaching with capitalism. His target could just as easily be any religious institution.
What really makes “A Man’s Fear of God” stand out is the way Kiziltan enriches his characters through their environment. Muharrem’s life was full of familiar, solid traditions linked to office, tea-shop, mosque and home. His plunge into the contempo world reveals the two sides of Istanbul, and the uneasy struggle that exists between them.
As he changes clothes and transforms from near indentured servitude to a position of respect, thesper Can undergoes a visual physical transformation, carrying his body with a new confidence and spontaneously, if uncomfortably, manifesting a forceful confrontational attitude. With heavy-lidded eyes that beautifully register his painful confusion, Can easily won the best actor award in Antalya.
Visuals are rich and multi-dimensional. Akin’s regular editor Andrew Bird, along with Niko, do an outstanding job of building tension during a music-filled religious ceremony that hits a fever pitch and then jumps to a most unexpected follow-up.