In the largely effective “Where the Fire Burns,” about the practice of honor-killing, writer-director Ismail Gunes keeps the focus squarely on the members of a tightly knit family whose deep affection for each other is measured against the brutality of social justice after the discovery of an unwed daughter’s pregnancy. But the pic’s drawn-out finale uses up the good will that its striking lensing, sympathetic perfs and uncluttered script have gained. The final entry in Gunes’ trilogy on violence, “Fire” snagged the Montreal fest’s grand prize and Fipresci’s best pic nod. Chances for wider distribution might increase with judicious pruning.
When 17-year-old Ayse (Elifcan Ongurlar) passes out while pushing her younger sister’s swing, her father Osman (Hakan Karahan) and pregnant mother Hatice (Yesim Ceren Bozoglu) rush her to the hospital, ready to sacrifice anything to see her well. But when they learn that she is carrying a baby, anger replaces concern. Though she refuses to name the father, the viewer can easily identify the papa, since Ayse frequently moons over the photo of a man who, as peripheral conversations establish, is the object of a police search.
Osman summons clan leaders, who decide Ayse must die because of her sin, with the hapless Osman appointed her reluctant executioner.
At first, the family home, full of lively girls and boys — Ayse’s younger siblings — seems like a happy, bucolic place, with whitewashed walls and bright blue trim. Even in Ayse’s nightmare, where she wanders through a now-unfurnished, empty house, the place never loses its welcoming contours. But after Ayse returns from the hospital, her father begins digging out a huge stone near the house. Osman tells his daughter he is taking her to her uncle’s until she gives birth, but embarks instead on an ominous journey with the serenely unsuspecting Ayse, a pick and shovel in the trunk beside a bottle of poison.
During the long road trip, similar in many ways to the voyage in Abdullah Oguz’s similarly themed “Bliss,” father and daughter draw closer. Ayse’s caring, sweet temperament (every living creature drawing delighted smiles from her, every minor hurt suffered by her father occasioning deep concern) militates against Osman’s deadly duty, his anguish growing as she starts reacting to the poison slipped into her water bottle.
Initially, helmer Gunes creates a balance between the nuclear family and the larger society. A distraught pregnant German woman (Katharina Weithaler) inexplicably dogs Osman’s footsteps. Meanwhile, television reports express horror at honor killings for which murderous fathers express no remorse. But this wider context disappears for the film’s entire last half-hour, with Karahan’s Osman and Ongurlar’s Ayse left to their own devices. And though the actors are excellent, they cannot fully sustain the interminable drama.