The plot sounds like something out of a Harold Robbins novel, but Mahmut Fazil Coskun carefully eliminates any hint of melodrama with the spare, measured, observational visuals of his debut, "Wrong Rosary."

The plot sounds like something out of a Harold Robbins novel, but Mahmut Fazil Coskun carefully eliminates any hint of melodrama with the spare, measured, observational visuals of his debut, “Wrong Rosary.” Set in an Istanbul of windy streets, antiquarian bookstores and seafront cafes, pic underplays all the elements of the impossible love between a young muezzin and a sheltered woman raised to be a nun, making the city itself a character through which the protags communicate. More incisive personalities would increase sympathies; nevertheless, fests will genuflect, especially after the pic’s Tiger win at Rotterdam.

Fresh from Ankara, Musa (Nadir Saribacak) arrives in the Galata section of Istanbul to take up his first job as a muezzin, leading the calls to prayer at a small mosque. Shy and inexperienced but reasonably educated, he moves into an apartment that comes with the job, next door to an elderly, bedridden woman looked after by painfully retiring caretaker Clara (Gorkem Yeltan). Musa timidly watches the excessively reserved Clara, who barely looks at him, let alone speaks.

He follows her to the local church, where he encounters Yakup (Ersan Uysal), an old book dealer with his own, undefined interest in Clara. The two men coincidentally strike up a conversation (pic has a few too many coincidences), and Yakup hires Musa part-time to help him with Ottoman-era tomes. Gradually, Clara’s confidence is won, and the hesitant glances she and Musa exchange reveal an emotion stronger than mere friendship.

Pic’s title comes from an early, amusing scene: Clara drops her rosary, Musa picks it up, but before returning it, he goes to work at the mosque. During services, his hands automatically go to his prayer beads; rather than fingering his own, he mistakenly uses the “wrong” rosary. Only when he drops it off in her collection plate at church does she finally speak. The script takes this near-pathological mousiness too far, and the pic’s greatest flaw is the unmodulated shyness exhibited by Clara and, to a lesser degree, Musa.

What saves it all is Coskun’s subtle use of Galata’s interiors and exteriors, providing the characters with quiet conduits and safe havens from the outside world. Little, however, is made of the religious institutions, and Musa’s job as muezzin is all but forgotten halfway through. Perfs match the tamped-down quality of the visuals, and if Yeltan too often looks like a fawn caught in the headlights, presumably that’s exactly how she’s been directed to behave.

Refik Cakar’s camerawork favors an observational, almost voyeuristic distance, with frequent shots from below that amplify the sense of hesitation and restraint. Colors, too, are muted, diffused like the emotions to guarantee no meller excess.

Wrong Rosary

Turkey

Production

A Hokusfokus Film production. Produced by Tulin Cetinkol Soyarslan, Ismail Kilicarslan, Tarik Tufan, Mahmut Fazil Coskun. Directed by Mahmut Fazil Coskun. Screenplay, Tarik Tufan, Gorkem Yeltan.

Crew

Camera (color), Refik Cakar; editor, Cicek Kahraman; music, Rahman Altin; production designer, Selda Cicek; costume designer, Hale Issever; sound (Dolby Digital), Duygu Celikkol, Murat Celikkol, Nurkut Ozdemir; assistant director, Ayhan Ozen; casting, Harika Uygur, Family Ajans. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (competing), Jan. 29, 2009. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Nadir Saribacak, Gorkem Yeltan, Ersan Uysal.
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