In Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation,” Gene Hackman played a surveillance expert who insists that curiosity is beyond the purview of his job, only to become obsessed with the mystery contained in a recorded conversation. A similar paradox informs Serhat Karaaslan’s debut feature “Passed by Censor,” in which a Turkish prison officer who fancies himself a writer fixates on the family of one of his inmates after he starts writing a fictionalized story about them. Censorship vs. creativity, paranoid fantasy vs. wishful thinking, the point where privacy ends and secrecy begins — all these heady elements simmer away against the backdrop of an inherently repressive institution in an increasingly authoritarian society. With parts like these, it’s little wonder that Karaaslan’s film adds up to a bit less than their sum.
His humdrum days spent painstakingly erasing potentially bothersome phrases from inmates’ letters, prison censor Zakir (Berkay Ates), who lives at home with his fussbudget mother (Fusum Demirel) while also secretly attending a creative writing class, first scribbles outside the lines of his job description due to a photograph. At a glance, the picture, which falls from one of the envelopes stacked on his desk for inspection, seems to be an anodyne family snap of an inmate, his attractive wife Selma (Saadet Isil Aksoy) and his father Adnan (Mufit Kayacan). But examined more closely, it contains a little enigma: The hand resting proprietorially on Selma’s shoulder — is it her husband’s or her father-in-law’s?
Encouraged by his tutor’s response to the story inspired by the photo, and egged on by classmate/Girl Friday Emel (Ipek Turktan Kaynak), a murder mystery aficionado, Zakir starts to watch Selma more closely on her frequent visits to the prison. The glimpses he gets — a strange undergarment, a snapped-off argument with Adnan, a scrap of stilted conversation between her and her husband — could all have innocent explanations. But stitched together by Zakir’s increasingly obsessive writer’s instinct, they build to a sinister conspiracy, with Selma as the beautiful damsel in need of rescue.
The plotting of Karaaslan’s screenplay is smooth and taut. He gets engaging performances from all his cast, especially Ates and the sparky Kaynak, even if he does over-rely on burning wordless glances between Zakir and the supermodel-gorgeous Selma to carry the weight of their unspoken connection. And in the absence of score, Johannes Doberenz’ precise sound design finds clever uses for ambient noise: the clattery echoes of gloss-painted institutional corridors, strip lighting that buzzes like paranoid thought and the irritating scratching of a biro through thin paper on a desktop. Yet despite all these smart flourishes, the film feels a little thin, as reflected in the deliberately flat-lit banality of Meryem Yavuz’ cinematography.
The grand tradition of the surveillance thriller has several canonical high-water marks, many of which Karaaslan’s film seems to homage, directly or otherwise. There’s a little bit of Antonioni’s “Blow Up,” and De Palma’s homage “Blow Out,” in the perusing of a photograph and a taped conversation, respectively. And, perhaps because of Zakir’s position of authority, as well as his eventual first-person contact with his subjects, it irresistibly recalls Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-winning “The Lives of Others,” in which a Stasi agent is moved to intervene in the affairs of the couple he is observing. But if these reference points are impressive, they also highlight what Karaaslan’s film is missing: Each of those classics derives as much tension from the political and social circumstances in which they are set as they do from the mysteries their hapless protagonists flail around solving. “Passed by Censor” is comparatively meek in relating Zakir’s pathology to the wider circumstances that fostered it, and so while it engages as a thriller, it lacks its touchpoints’ grainy, subversive vitality.
As a first film, and a well-built one at that, it does succeed on a smaller canvas, in highlighting the quandary of a man of sensitive nature trapped in a profession that requires insensitivity — perhaps even the boorishness that many of Zakir’s co-workers display. And there is a refreshing, if deep-buried, streak of mordant wit (the film can otherwise feel a little humorless) in the psychological contradiction between the act of writing words, and of erasing them. But perhaps the enjoyably absorbing “Passed by Censor” works best as a study of an aspiring writer. A lot of Zakir’s odd behavior ultimately springs from the tension between the world of his imagination and the real world, that does not conform to satisfyingly plotted Agatha Christie rules, a perpetual disappointment to which most writers — and most anyone who spends too much time in their own head — can probably relate.