×

Karlovy Vary Film Review: ‘Passed By Censor’

A censor working in a Turkish prison becomes obsessed with an inmate's mysterious wife in this capable, low-key thriller debut.

Director:
Serhat Karaaslan
With:
Berkay Ates, Saadet Isil Aksoy, Fusun Demirek, Ipek Turktan Kaynak, Erdem Senocak. (Turkish dialogue)

Running time: 95 MIN.

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.

Popular on Variety

Karlovy Vary Film Review: 'Passed By Censor'

Reviewed at Karloy Vary Film Festival (competing), July 3, 2019. Running time: 95 MIN. (Original title: "Görülmüştür")

Production: (Turkey-Germany-France) A +90 Film production in co-production with Departures Film, Silex Films, with the support of the Turkish Ministry of Culture, Eurimages, Mitteldeutsche Medienforderung, Toy, Bir Film. (Int'l sales: BAC, Paris.) Producers: Serkan Cakarer, Undine Filter, Thomas Kral, Judith Nora, Priscilla Bertin.

Crew: Director, writer: Serhat Karaaslan. Camera (color, widescreen): Meryem Yavuz. Editor: Ali Aga.

With: Berkay Ates, Saadet Isil Aksoy, Fusun Demirek, Ipek Turktan Kaynak, Erdem Senocak. (Turkish dialogue)

More Film

  • For web story

    Toronto: Sony Pictures Classics Buys 'The Burnt Orange Heresy' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Sony Pictures Classics has nabbed the rights to “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” Variety has learned. The indie label plans to release the film in 2020. The Italian-American thriller was directed by Giuseppe Capotondi and stars Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Mick Jagger, and Donald Sutherland. Scott Smith adapted Charles Willeford’s novel of the same name, transporting [...]

  • Thomasin McKenzie and Essie Davis

    Thomasin McKenzie and Essie Davis to Star in 'Justice of Bunny King'

    Essie Davis, star of “The Babadook” and autumn festival hit “Babyteeth,” and “Jojo Rabbit” co-star Thomasin McKenzie will headline upcoming drama “The Justice of Bunny King.” The film, now shooting in New Zealand, is a triumph over adversity tale about women fighting their way back from the bottom of society. It is the debut feature [...]

  • Calm With Horses

    Nick Rowland Talks About Toronto Debut Film 'Calm With Horses'

    “Calm with Horses,” which made its world premiere in Toronto’s TIFF in the Discovery section, is the feature directorial debut of Nick Rowland (Amazon series “Ripper Street”), and stars Barry Keoghan (Marvel’s upcoming “The Eternals,” “Dunkirk”), Cosmo Jarvis (“Annihilation”), and Niamh Algar (BBC’s “The Virtues”). The script, which was adapted from Colin Barrett’s short story [...]

  • Colin Trevorrow Directs Jurassic World Short

    Colin Trevorrow Returns to Jurassic World in Short Film 'Battle at Big Rock'

    Dinosaurs are roaming the Earth again. In a new short from “Jurassic World” director Colin Trevorrow, rogue beasts wreak havoc on a family camping trip. The eight-and-a-half minute film, titled “Battle at Big Rock,” takes place a year after the events of “Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom.” More Reviews Toronto Film Review: 'Atlantis' Venice Film Review: [...]

  • Bert Kreischer The Machine

    Legendary Lands Rights to Bert Kreischer’s Viral Story 'The Machine' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Legendary has optioned the rights to develop comedian Bert Kreischer’s story “The Machine” into a feature film following its viral success, sources tell Variety. The video has generated more than 85 million views on Facebook and YouTube since hitting the social media channels in December 2016 and Legendary moved aggressively to land the rights. Kreischer [...]

  • Margot Robbie poses at the launch

    Margot Robbie in Talks to Executive Produce, Star in Comedy 'Fools Day'

    Margot Robbie is in negotiations to executive produce and star as a fourth-grade teacher in New Line’s comedy “Fools Day.” New Line has acquired Cody Blue Snider’s short film of the same name to adapt into the feature project. Snider, who co-wrote and directed the short, will direct the full-length feature from a script he [...]

  • M Night Shyamalan'Glass' film premiere, Arrivals,

    M. Night Shyamalan Sets Two New Films at Universal

    M. Night Shyamalan will write and direct two new movies at Universal Pictures, the studio announced Monday. The currently untitled thrillers will be released in theaters on Feb. 26, 2021 and Feb. 17, 2023, respectively. “M. Night Shyamalan continues to create exciting, highly original stories that keep global audiences on the edge of their seats,” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content