×

Film Review: ‘Sibel’

Folklore, gender roles and an ersatz kind of emancipation are mixed together in the tale of a mute young woman in rural Turkey.

Director:
Çagla Zencirci, Guillaume Giovanetti
With:
Damla Sönmez, Emin Gürsoy, Erkan Kolçak Köstendil

1 hour 35 minutes

Three years ago, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s handsomely made yet exoticizing “Mustang” reinforced a Western idea of rural Turkish life and was received with general acclaim away from home, proving that a filmmaker’s local origins don’t exclude an internalized brand of orientalism. That’s even truer with “Sibel,” Çagla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti’s third feature, the first one shot in Zencirci’s country of birth. Weaving together folklore, gender roles and a fitful kind of emancipation in the story of a mute young woman desperate to counter the ostracism of her fellow villagers, the writer-director couple have created an attractive package that doesn’t hold up to close inspection. Even so, thanks to the extensive use of an intriguing whistle language, and given the way it buttresses Western narrative notions of Asia Minor, the film has a good chance of garnering international art-house attention.

The movie’s biggest selling point is the whistle language, which may seem like it comes straight out of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not”: Locals in the northeastern village of Kuşköy have developed a way of communicating across the hilly fields by imitating bird calls, honing the sounds so that complex sentences are transmitted using hoots and pips. It’s fascinating to listen to, and apparently an accurate representation of how residents call out to one another. On learning of this unique form of interaction, the directors wrote a script about Sibel (Damla Sönmez), a mute in her mid-20s who’s the daughter of Emin (Emin Gürsoy), the head of the village.

Marginalized by the villagers because she’s unable to speak, Sibel needn’t conform to expectations, which is why she doesn’t wear a headscarf like all the other women, including her nasty younger sister, Fatma (Elit İşcan). Part of the day Sibel works the fields with the others, then she takes her rifle and looks for a wolf believed to be roaming the countryside. Once back home she hangs up her quasi-feral independence and takes charge of the household, cooking and doing all the chores. Between her instinctive tracking abilities and her filial devotion, it’s no wonder she’s her father’s favorite.

But given that Sibel has no problem communicating, thanks to the whistle language, which is used by all, it doesn’t make sense that she’s excluded by the other women — particularly since she’s the favored daughter of the headman. Nor is there a reason for her father to permit her to flout traditional gender norms, though it does allow the directors to make maximum use of Sönmez’s attractive hair (shades of “Mustang”). Clearly she’s meant as an archetype, to stand for concepts rather than to be a real figure, but Zencirci and Giovanetti did a more convincing job painting a portrait of marginalization in their debut feature “Noor.”

While hunting for the wolf, Sibel is attacked in the underbrush by Ali (Erkan Kolçak Köstendil), a mysterious wounded man she traps and then secretly nurses back to health in the forest. He’s the first person to appreciate her beauty (Sönmez bears a resemblance to a young Emmanuelle Béart), and the first not to scorn her, apart from her father. Fatima’s spitefulness, however, creates huge problems when she spies her sister in the woods with a stranger.

Zencirci and Giovanetti consciously play with folk tales, especially the wolf plotline that represents fear of the outside and gives Sibel a watershed goal to aspire to: If she kills the wolf, she will be celebrated by her community. Less successful is the introduction of Narin (Meral Çetinkaya), a crazed older spinster living alone and waiting for her fiancé who disappeared decades ago. Like much in the film, the character feels forced, a mere plot device taken from fairy tales divorced from a sense of reality. Yet it might have worked had the film aimed at playing on that liminal Guillermo del Toro-like border between the real and the folk story. Instead, the film sits in an uneasy area, wanting to reproduce real life in this “exotic” village yet forcing it into a straightjacket of primal legends and inorganic notions.

Too often Sönmez is made to play her role on the edge of barely contained hysteria: Her whistling Sibel should be able to evoke enough interest without needing to be so high-strung. Basically only Emin has a sense of three-dimensionality, even if it’s often unknowable. More successful are the visuals, attractively lit and satisfyingly composed, with the right amount of nervous energy as the camera follows the ever-restless protagonist.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Sibel'

Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (competing), Aug. 3, 2018 (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Contemporary World Cinema.) Running time: 95 MIN.

Production: (France-Germany-Luxembourg-Turkey) A Pyramide release (in France) of a Les Films du Tambour presentation of a Les Films du Tambour, Riva Filmproduktion, Bidibul Prods., Mars Prod., Reborn Prods. production, in association with Pyramide, Arte, Cofinova 14. (International sales: Pyramide Intl., Paris.) Producers: Marie Legrand, Rani Massalha, Michael Eckelt, Johannes Jancke, Marsel Kalvo, Nefes Polat, Christel Henon, Lilian Eche. Co-producer: Marc Simoncini.

Crew: Directors: Çagla Zencirci, Guillaume Giovanetti. Screenplay: Zencirci, Ramata Sy, Giovanetti. Camera (color, widescreen): Eric Devin. Editor: Véronique Lange. Music: Bassel Hallak, Pi.

With: Damla Sönmez, Emin Gürsoy, Erkan Kolçak Köstendil, Elit İşcan, Meral Çetinkaya, Sevval Tezcan. (Turkish dialogue)

More Film

  • This photo shows actor David Oyelowo

    David Oyelowo Joins George Clooney in 'Good Morning, Midnight' Adaptation (EXCLUSIVE)

    David Oyelowo is in final negotiations to join George Clooney in Netflix’s untitled adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel “Good Morning, Midnight,” sources tell Variety. Felicity Jones and Kyle Chandler are also on board, with Clooney set to helm the pic — his first feature film directing gig since 2017’s “Suburbicon.” “The Revenant” screenwriter Mark [...]

  • Disney Delays 'Cruella,' 'Woman in the

    Disney Delays 'Cruella,' 'Woman in the Window'

    Disney is shaking up its release calendar, delaying its live action “Cruella” until Memorial Day 2021 and pushing Fox 2000 drama “The Woman in the Window” to 2020. “Cruella,” starring Emma Stone, is based on the classic “101 Dalmatians” villain Cruella de Vil. The revisit to Disney’s animated classic was originally set to hit theaters [...]

  • Spider-Man Could Leave the Marvel Cinematic

    Spider-Man Could Leave MCU if Disney, Sony Can't Reach Financing Deal

    Disney’s Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures have hit an impasse on new financing terms for upcoming Spider-Man movies, sources have told Variety. If a deal cannot be reached, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige will not produce future Spider-Man films, effectively removing Tom Holland’s Spider-Man from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Reps for Disney, Marvel and Sony [...]

  • Australia Makes Progress on Gender Equality

    Australia Makes Progress on Gender Equality in Film and TV

    Screen Australia, Australia’s federal film and TV funding body, has made sufficient progress in furthering gender equality that it has set more ambitious targets. The organization has exceeded its long-term Gender Matters key performance indicator, with 56% of projects receiving production funding having at least half of the key creative roles occupied by women, based [...]

  • Pawel Pawlikowski, during the ceremony award

    Pawel Pawlikowski on the Power of Making Movies With ‘Barbarians at the Gate’

    Academy Award winner Pawel Pawlikowski says he’s watching “with horror” as political developments increasingly divide countries across the globe, and admits that he’s reluctant to take a stab at documenting modern life after the success of his two critically acclaimed period dramas, foreign-language Oscar winner “Ida” and thrice-nominated “Cold War.” “I don’t have a hook [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content