A woman in a village by the Black Sea seeks closure on her tangled past in “Waiting for the Clouds,” a timely, potentially resonant idea that makes it to the screen only half-formed. Third feature by Turkish helmer Yesim Ustaoglu, following her acclaimed sophomore outing “Journey to the Sun” (1999), is atmospheric at a visual level but unengaging on an emotional one, largely thanks to a bumpy script. Pic’s original, sensitive theme will attract some festival engagements, but specialized distribution looks to be thin, especially beyond Europe.
Ayse (Ruchan Caliskur), who’s in her 60s, lives in Trebolu, a rambling village on the north coast of Turkey, in the same wooden house with her older sister, Selma (Suna Selen). It’s 1975, and Turkey is ruled by a military-supported right-wing government.
When Selma becomes ill and is rushed to the hospital during a census questioning session, and later dies, Ayse is hit hard. Some long-concealed photos seem to evoke troubled memories. When she and other village women take their cattle into the hills for seasonal pasture, Ayse falls sick, staying in her tiny shack after the others have gone back down.
Word grows among the superstitious womenfolk that Ayse is losing her mind. Then a Greek-speaking stranger arrives in town, called Thanasis (Dimitris Kamberidis), who unlocks Ayse’s buried past and spurs her to journey to Thessaloniki to find her long-lost brother, Nikos (Yannis Georgiadis).
Inspired by — rather than closely following — a novella by Greek writer Yorgios Andreadis, script uses the neat device of having the story seen partly through the eyes of an 8-year-old Turkish child, Mehmet (Ridvan Yagci).
Aside from lending youthful vigor to a largely middle-aged and elderly cast, Mehmet and his pals also conveniently sketch in some of the yarn’s political background. At school — in some of the pic’s most engaging scenes — the tykes are drilled with “Turks are best” slogans. Meanwhile Mehmet’s father, a Communist, has mysteriously “disappeared.”
With small details, the film builds a background of ethnic and political repression in the present day that echoes Ayse’s own history — one rooted in the forced deportation of Greeks after the Turkish war of independence in the early 1920s: Ayse has effectively concealed her true identity and ethnicity for half a century.
It’s a potentially powerful story, but the script by Ustaoglu and Petros Markaris is muddled. Background historical info — so important to pic’s full appreciation — is either assumed or doled out in confusing or undramatic chunks.
Ustaoglu’s previous two pics, “The Trace” (1994) and “Journey to the Sun,” dealt with political and ethnic repression in Turkey’s recent past. “Clouds” basically extends the same themes backward in time, but also seems equally interested, in an almost semi-ethnographical way, with the Black Sea community in which it’s set. Jacek Petrycki’s lensing of the remote main location conjures up many striking images of cloud-wreathed landscapes and hard-scrabble peasant life. But after a while, these start to detract from the main story — Ayse’s search for roots — which develops way too late to gain much emotional momentum. Just when pic is starting to engage on that level, it suddenly stops.
Co-scripter Markaris has worked with Greek helmer Theo Angelopoulos, and the latter’s shadow can sometimes be seen — not to the best effect. Pic’s backstory even overlaps with the beginning of Angelopoulos’ latest movie, “Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow.”
Largely non-pro, local thesps are fine, and as Mehmet the young Ridvan Yagci is quite a find, buoyant and inquisitive without being cute. As his mom, Feride Karaman is also solid. More variable is Caliskur as Ayse, who sometimes looks and acts too young for the part and, ironically for a legit actress, doesn’t really project her emotions.
In the national competition at the Istanbul fest, film won the Special Jury Award and, more surprisingly, best actress award for Caliskur.