An ornately styled tale that cries out for lucid simplicity, “Harem Suare” tells of an odalisque and a eunuch, drawn together by love and the desire for power in a Turkish harem in the early 1900s. Adopting an intricate approach to historical melodrama not unlike that of Zhang Yimou’s early films — “Raise the Red Lantern” in particular — the opulent production is undone by its convoluted narrative. Lacking the concrete exposition and character grounding to pull audiences into its exotic world, this more ambitious film looks unlikely to match the commercial impact of director Ferzan Ozpetek’s widely traveled debut, “Hamam — The Turkish Bath.”
Set on the eve of the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the harem of Sultan Abdulhamit II (Haluk Bilginer), the story follows Italian-born Safiye (Marie Gillain) from her entry into the closed community through her rise within its ranks to become the Sultan’s favorite.
Appraising her as a worthy candidate, equally arriviste black eunuch Nadir (Alex Descas) forms an alliance with Safiye. She gains favor with the Sultan by translating Italian operas for him and soon secures herself a private apartment.
Indulging in the treachery that runs rife among the jealous concubines, Nadir and Safiye consolidate the girl’s position within the court as the unspoken attraction between them becomes stronger, eventually leading to a forbidden physical relationship. Safiye gives birth to the Sultan’s son, but the attainment of her goal is short-lived.
Unfolding in a dreamy atmosphere, the story follows a complicated circular trajectory as it shifts between time periods and two narrators. These are a much older Safiye (Lucia Bose) years later in Italy, recounting her story to a woman (Valeria Golino) in a train station bar; and in a slightly surreal ruse that adds to the confusion, Safiye’s servant (Serra Yilmaz), who appears to describe events that have yet to happen. This kind of “Arabian Nights” device of interwoven tales within tales seems far too literary and prevents the rambling story from gaining momentum.
The syntactically chaotic script by Ozpetek and Gianni Romoli fails to establish a solid point of departure, instead presenting events in cloudy fragments that are hard work to piece together, and referring throughout to characters that have not been sufficiently identified. Even the principals are given scant introduction, meaning that despite capable work from the cast, their characters remain remote.
The film is more impressive in its visual sensuality, its depiction of a vanished world and fascination with the rituals of the bizarre, closed universe. The harem is depicted not in cliched terms as a community of dancing, veiled sex slaves but as an idyllic microcosm whose inhabitants are unconcerned by the troubles of the outside world and free to pursue cultural enrichment in art, music and languages.
The polished production’s richly detailed sets and costumes are lovingly captured in Pasquale Mari’s graceful camerawork and warm-toned lighting.