Pity that “Present Tense” has such a generic title, since Belmin Soylemez’s feature debut is a memorable look at a young woman whose unexpected career as a fortune-teller grants her insight into everyone’s problems but her own. Populated with sympathetic characters whose disappointments trap them in a limbo world without an obvious exit sign, the pic ends on a mildly unsatisfying note, yet its fine perfs, well-rounded protags and compassionate viewpoint paper over any minor quibbles. Prizes at home will continue to propel “Present” through the fest scene, where more awards await.
Recent divorcee Mina (Sanem Oge) harbors one dream: to move to America. Something in her projection of emotional exhaustion and psychic disappointment implies that she had other dreams at one time, yet they’ve proven bankrupt, and for now she’s banking on something more secure by exchanging what little money she has for U.S. dollars.
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Unable to find a decent job, she applies for work as a fortune-teller in a cafe; she’s read coffee grinds before as a pastime, but never professionally. Sad-eyed cafe owner Tayfun (Ozan Bilen) hires her, and soon she’s drawing a loyal following, thanks to readings that are more psychological insight than supernatural ball-gazing. Fellow fortune-teller Fazi (Senay Aydin) likes Mina, but soon becomes jealous of the attention accruing to the quieter woman, and looks to hurt her by exposing her dreams, just as Fazi’s own hopes are constantly frustrated.
Perhaps a better title for the pic would have been “Present Tense Conditional,” since Soylemez is especially good at depicting the uncertainty and dissatisfaction of thwarted lives. Tayfun is trapped in his family business, uncertain how to escape; Fazi tumbles from one unsuitable relationship to another, living an almost gypsy life of impermanence; and Mina tries to direct all her resources to moving to the U.S.
Though she’s saving money, Mina doesn’t have enough to meet study-abroad requirements, and she lacks a visa. Her apartment building is being turned into a hotel and she keeps ignoring eviction notices. Clearly, she’s pushing away anything that leads to a concrete future, frozen by her inability to take control of her destiny even as she guides others toward self-realization.
Looking strikingly like a young Juliette Binoche, star Oge delivers a beautifully modulated performance, capturing Mina’s reserve as well as her fragmented determination. The intelligent script hints at her past, including a divorce and a difficult relationship with her family, trusting Oge to silently convey the character’s complexities without the need to spell it all out.
Austrian d.p. Peter Roehsler often frames his figures to gently emphasize their separation from others, and his stately, mutedly rich lensing is a bonus. Sound mix is also tops.