Reha Erdem is one of the most distinctive directors working today: no one else’s films look quite like his (thanks in part to his symbiotic partnership with DP Florent Herry), nor are anyone else’s movies populated with the kinds of people inhabiting his universe. Erdem conjures characters in broad strokes, exploring the feral nature that lies embedded inside children and young adults who’ve not yet learned how to encase themselves in the norms of “civilized behavior.” His ninth feature, “Big Big World,” is a counterpart to his beautiful penultimate film “Jin,” as both are largely set in an Edenic forest where animals act as silent spectators in a parallel, unbreachable domain. Unabashedly opaque in a very Erdem manner, the film took home the special jury prize in Venice’s Horizons competition and deserves robust festival and showcase play, though arthouse release is unlikely.
There’s a strong “They Live by Night” streak in this story of a couple of orphans on the run from the law and society, just wanting to find a non-hostile environment. Ali (Berke Karaer) is recently out of an orphanage and working as a mechanic; he’s been trying to see the girl he believes is his sister, Zuhal (Ecem Uzun), but her new foster family won’t let him through the door. Then he hears that the creepy foster father is about to take Zuhal as his second wife, so in a remarkably unsensationalized scene, he storms in, stabs the family members, and flees with the girl. The violence is quick, brutal, and devoid of any “Bonnie and Clyde” aesthetics: Erdem isn’t looking to glamorize or sexualize Ali’s action but rather to show the extent to which a young man raised without kindness will go to protect the one person in this world who matters.
The two escape on his motorbike in classic rebel fashion and head to the forest, where he constructs a makeshift dwelling deep in the woods. This becomes their Paradise, and Erdem and Herry showcase its sylvan glory with stunning awareness of every shade of green, each glimmer of sunlight and all the gradations of shadow. Yet this is an Eden after the fall: While animals such as tortoises, snails, frogs, cranes, and yes, snakes, are seen as benign cohabitants, their tranquility is undisturbed, whereas Ali and Zuhal discover they’re not alone. A mysterious unseen figure uses a mirror to flash light on Zuhal; an elderly woman with dementia appears crying for her father; a crazy man on a motorbike screams, “Mommy!”
Don’t look for logical explanations: Erdem prefers to evoke worlds via an ineffably poetic blend of reality and quasi-magical realism, almost as if projections of anxiety become manifest in human form (however, no one will mistake his films for those of Apichatpong Weerasethakul). Here he separates the action into two realms: the forest and the nearby town, where Ali goes to earn some money and has his gullibility (not to mention teenage hormones) taken advantage of by a worldly fortune teller (Melisa Akman) in a fun fair. Meanwhile, Zuhal barely leaves the woods, becoming increasingly undomesticated as her pregnancy begins to manifest itself.
Erdem’s affinity for young women released from the bonds of learned behavior — “My Only Sunshine” as well as “Jin” — allows him to construct memorable characters who have an air of burgeoning sexuality yet aren’t objectified in a creepy way. With “Big Big World” he’s found the right balance between male and female roles, and both actors deliver impressively modulated, unrestrained performances. Karaer, with his thin teenager moustache and expressive, determined eyes movingly conveys Ali’s fundamental need for a protective warmth that’s both given and received, while Uzun endows Zuhal with an instinctive lack of inhibition combined with the egocentricity of youth.
The visceral genetics of the story, with its sensitivity to an almost Rousseau-like concept of freedom in a natural setting, is given emotional weight by Ali and Zuhal’s fundamental need for each other. All this is played out amidst the remarkable splendor of Herry’s talented lens, so attuned to contrasts between the literal cold light of day just after the stabbing, and the saturated richness of the forest. Sunlight makes Karaer’s skin glow with golden warmth, silvers the water around their shack, and creates pools of illumination juxtaposed with nighttime scenes in which the woods become havens of mystery.