Film Review: ‘A Tale of Three Sisters’

Three sisters in a remote village dream of leaving the limited confines of their father’s home in this perplexing tale of limited appeal.

'A Tale of Three Sisters' Review
Berlin Film Festival

In a small village in the mountains of northeastern Turkey, three peasant sisters uneasily reunite under their father’s rustic roof in Emin Alper’s opaque, oddly theatrical “A Tale of Three Sisters.” Stunningly lensed in widescreen amidst the rocky peaks, the film struggles to excite admiration outside the visuals, forcing the viewer to vainly search for what exactly it was Alper wished to achieve. Bearing no evident connection to Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” apart perhaps from the girls’ desire, like Irina Sergeyevna, to live in town, this ultimately uninteresting drama is undermined by characters of little discernible intelligence whose plight will leave many viewers apathetic, partly due to the way dialogue seems to be artificially recited rather than naturally delivered. Outside a few festivals and Turkish showcases, it’s hard to imagine who’ll buy this “Tale.”

Unlike Alper’s previous feature “Frenzy,” with its clear parallels to the political situation today, his latest is a hermetic drama lacking any perceptible alternate reading. The background is the dying tradition of “besleme,” a term encompassing foster child and servant, in which young girls from the countryside are placed with better-off households where they’re accorded nominal status within the family yet treated as servants. At the film’s start, 13-year-old Havva (Helin Kandemir) is returned to her father Şevket (Müfit Kayacan) following the death of her foster-brother. Though happy to see her sister Reyhan (Cemre Ebüzziya), 20, it’s difficult for Havva to transition from a middle-class lifestyle, even though hers was a servile role, to her isolated native village and its lack of amenities.

Reyhan was once in the same position, but it’s gradually revealed she was dumped back home after getting pregnant and then married off to illiterate shepherd Veysel (Kayhan Açıkgöz) in order to cover up her shame. Veysel is the film’s most problematic character, a cowardly, nasty idiot whose unpleasantness and limited dimensionality is the stuff of middling pastoral novels from another era. That he’s the catalyst for the narrative’s oddly downplayed tragedy is another hindrance to viewer involvement, since it’s such a challenge to accord him any understanding or sympathy.

Middle sister Nurhan (Ece Yüksel) is also back to roost when her foster father Mr. Necati (Kubilay Tunçer) returns her in shame — she’s been beating her charges for bed wetting, and her bullheadedness was finally too much for the family. Even at home she’s a handful, arguing with Reyhan and scraping what looks like lichen off the stone walls, which she gobbles up, presumably to get even sicker than she already is and thereby gain sympathy. Meanwhile, Havva’s angling to take Nurhan’s position with the Necatis.

As the three siblings argue or strategically come together, Şevket (also of limited intelligence) hangs out with the village headman (Hilmi Özçelik) and tries to figure out what to do with his daughters. Perhaps there’s a deeper meaning to it all, perhaps there’s a reason why the characters say their dialogue in such ultra-clear lines, with no overlapping, that it feels we’ve walked into the filmed version of a play. Could there be more Chekhovian parallels than meets the eye, and if so, what’s the point of Hatice (Başak Kıvılcım Ertanoğlu), a woman whose sole purpose is to gleefully somersault over hills?

At least those are glorious hills, and mountains, capped with snow and shot by Emre Erkmen in stunning color saturation and sharpness. Interiors convey a chiaroscuro effect influenced, according to Alper, by Dutch Old Masters, suggesting a darkened intimacy nicely contrasted with the expansive landscape with the village isolated against the barren majesty. Mournful musical accompaniment reinforces the general unhappiness.

Film Review: ‘A Tale of Three Sisters’

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), February 10, 2019. Running time: 107 MIN. (Original title: “Kız Kardeşler”)

  • Production: (Turkey-Germany-Netherlands-Greece) A Liman Film, Nu Look Production, Komplizen Film, Circe Films, Horsefly Productions, in association with ZDF/Arte, with the contribution of Two Thirty-Five. (Int'l sales: The Match Factory, Cologne.) Producers: Nadir Öperli, Muzaffer Yıldırım. Coproducers: Jonas Dornbach, Jannine Jackowski, Maren Ade, Stienette Bosklopper, Yorgos Tsourgiannis, Lisette Kelder, Enis Köstepen.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Emin Alper. Camera (color, widescreen): Emre Erkmen. Editor: Çiçek Kahraman. Music: Giorgos Papaioannou, Nikos Papaioannou.
  • With: Cemre Ebüzziya, Ece Yüksel, Helin Kandemir , Kayhan Açıkgöz, Müfit Kayacan, Kubilay Tunçer, Hilmi Özçelik, Başak Kıvılcım Ertanoğlu. (Turkish dialogue)