Every family is unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy famously noted, though the unhappiness of the Turkish immigrant family in “Kuma” seems to suggest that some fictional clans suffer from narrative conventions that are far from unique. Debuting Kurdish-Austrian director Umut Dag does find moments of grace in quite a few individual scenes, and the acting from the femme-dominated cast is strong, turning this into an intermittently fascinating picture about an extended household undergoing a litany of assorted immigrant-family ills. Berlin’s Panorama opening slot and sociopolitical relevance should help it get noticed.
Initially and intentionally somewhat messy and vague, the script (by tyro scribe Petra Ladinigg) throws auds straight into the traditional Turkish wedding of fair, 19-year-old country lass Ayse (Begum Akkaya) and her handsome hubby, Hasan (Murathan Muslu). After a teary goodbye, Hasan and his family, led by his kind father, Mustafa (Vedat Erincin), take the timid Ayse back to Austria, where they live.
It slowly emerges that Hasan was a stand-in for the aging Mustafa, who, at the insistence of his cancer-ridden wife, Fatma (Nihal Koldas), has taken a second spouse to be her substitute, should she not survive chemotherapy. Hasan seems to accept the solution for reasons telegraphed too obviously early on, but the two eldest of his five siblings find it harder to accept a potential surrogate mother from the Turkish countryside who speaks no German and is still a teenager herself.
Like many first features, the pic tries to cover far too much ground, giving the impression that all the potential ills that could befall a family — life-threatening illnesses, death, extramarital affairs, homosexuality — have conspired to jointly visit Mustafa’s brood in the space of year or so.
Dag’s surehanded direction of individual scenes and elliptical storytelling, with numerous fade-to-blacks and temporal jumps, ensure that “Kuma” rarely feels like a soap opera, even though each new narrative twist distracts from the overarching theme: the constant tug of war between the older generation and its offspring, and the difference in values between a family’s native country and the country they live in. These tensions most clearly come to the fore in the pic’s most successful element: the close, increasingly complex relationship between Fatma and Ayse, convincingly limned by Koldas and Akkaya, respectively.
Alev Irmak and Dilara Karabayir, as the bickering eldest sisters of the family, also impress, while Muslu, from Dag’s short “Papa,” gets one strong confessional scene in the family bathroom. Turkish-German vet Erincin (“Shahada,” “Almanya”) is a benign presence as the hard-working father.
Lenser Carsten Thiele allows a little too much light into his lens, flattening colors and sacrificing depth of field, while direct light sources occasionally still pose a problem the digital camera can’t quite handle. That said, the widescreen images feel entirely natural in they way they follow the characters in the cramped quarters of the family home or the Turkish supermarket where Ayse is forced to take a job.
Costumes do a good job of conveying the sense of living between two cultures, while Iva Zabkar’s score gently supports the proceedings.