In first-time Turkish helmer Alphan Eseli’s shattering film “The Long Way Home,” the horrors of war are demonstrated not by soldiers in the heat of combat, but by seven survivors trekking home across the snow-covered hills of Eastern Anatolia after the 1915 Battle of Sarikamis. Subzero temperatures force the disparate travelers, arriving separately from different directions, to take shelter in the same deserted, burnt-out village, where the solidarity initially forged by their shared circumstances breaks down as food supplies dwindle and class/ethnic tensions escalate. This strong, disturbing winner of a special jury prize at Montreal reps a hard theatrical sell but should impress at fests.
In the opening sequence, shot in startling long shots and occasional closeups against seemingly infinite expanses of white, a horse-drawn wagon struggles up a hill, a man (Ugur Polat) pulling on the horse’s bridle. The straining beast falls over dead, compelling the man and his two charges, a richly dressed woman (Nergis Ozturk) and her young daughter (Myraslava Kostyeva), to trudge ahead on foot.
Almost more than any of the human characters, these unbroken snowscapes epitomize the film. It was on this terrain that some 90,000 Turkish troops, who had embarked on an ill-advised offensive against the Russian army, famously froze to death. Indeed, the man, woman and child must pass between endless rows of these fallen frozen soldiers that suddenly appear before them, silently stretching into the horizon and beyond.
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After a series of paranoid encounters as each of the players finds his way to the same torched, abandoned Armenian village, seven people are soon huddled around a makeshift fire. There’s the upper-class trio from the wagon (introduced in the opening scene); an Armenian peasant man (Murharrem Bayrak) and woman (Sula Cetindag) from an adjoining Russian-ravaged hamlet; and two Turkish soldiers (Serdar Orcin, Sevket Suha Tezel), very much the worse for wear.
Cold and exhaustion keep dialogue at a minimum. Not one for stereotypes, writer-director Eseli manifests his characters’ social differences through the manner in which they weigh their options rather than through the usual class indicators (such as upper-crust arrogance). The presence of the young girl unites the motley group in a vaguely protective mode but as new threats loom, social taboos fall away, particularly for the soldiers whose very humanity seems to have hemorrhaged through their wounds.
The film grows bleaker and bleaker as freezing cold, starvation and murder decimate the remaining hangers-on, clinging to the last shreds of civilization and desperate to reach home. Cinematographer Hayk Kirakosyan’s stark compositions chill, Burak Topalakci’s desolate sound design hits hard, and the haunting score (by Bela Tarr regular Mihaly Vig) devastates.