In the early moments of “Commitment Hasan,” Turkish writer-director Semih Kaplanoglu’s slow-burning morality tale, one could mistake the titular character for a weak, vulnerable individual others routinely walk all over. Portrayed with a quiet sense of stealth by Umut Karadag, Hasan is a fairly prosperous farmer and gardener tending to the family land he inherited from his father, a windswept, fecund place of tomato fields and apple orchards. In the opening sequence, he puts up a silent and losing fight against an arrogant engineer who drops by his plot unannounced and informs Hasan that an electrical pylon would soon be erected right in the middle of his field as part of the government’s plan to enhance the region’s power grid. Hasan sheepishly protests: Why wouldn’t they reroute the expansion and choose the vacant neighboring field instead? Predictably, his objections fall on deaf ears.
Soon though, Kaplanoglu’s drawn-out script crawls through different shades of Hasan, revealing a slyly conniving, often unfair manipulator gifted at safeguarding his interests at the expense of others. This is someone who knows his way around the taxing Kafkaesque bureaucracy he’s about to face. Not only has he been there before, but he’s also put others through the wringer in similar fashions, cheaply cutting corners for unjust personal advantage and a quick buck or two.
Through a lethargic pace that tests one patience and Özgür Eken’s lush cinematography of pastoral textures that alleviates some of that sluggishness, Kaplanoglu builds these complex facets of Hasan’s world in subtle detail, forming an indistinct prototype of the predominantly Muslim Turkish society where greed and self-centered pursuits are habitually at odds with the teachings of faith. In that regard, Hasan quickly finds that the pylon that would compromise the fertility of his soil is no big burden compared to the ethical threat his upcoming pilgrimage to Mecca would pose on his conscience. When he and his equally calculating wife Emine (a splendid Filiz Bozok) get an out-of-the-blue approval for the hajj, a mandatory religious duty in Islam, the couple obligatorily examine their troubling past acts, just so they can make amends in due course and embark on their spiritual journey with a clean slate.
The second entry in the filmmaker’s “Commitment” trilogy and Turkey’s Oscar submission (like the first installment of the series, simply called “Commitment”), this chapter shows Kaplanoglu’s ethical sensibilities and pronounced interest in family dynamics play out on a rural canvas. These curiosities neatly complement those depicted in the former film that unfolds in a handsome urban setting and chiefly concerns itself with class and contemporary womanhood. Still, one can’t help but crave a deeper societal critique here from Kaplanoglu.
To avoid didacticism at all costs and remain observational as his past catches up with Hasan, the filmmaker errs on the side of obviousness, making only the most simple-minded points (sure, any financial gain that is haram is bad), sidestepping some tougher cultural interrogations. On one hand, “Commitment Hasan” closely resembles a Nuri Bilge Ceylan movie through its patient cinematography and graceful visuals that allow both the nature and the people that inhabit it ample space to move at their own speed — dewy bushes, carefree wildlife, expansive prairies and so on. On the other, it seems to lack a crucial sense of earned wisdom and the intricate handle on the human psyche that Ceylan’s cinema effortlessly possesses.
Nevertheless, Kaplanoglu manages to offer up enough intrigue on a scene-by-scene basis, with his dedicated cast doing some terrific work. Eken and Bozok especially deliver a pair of layered performances as a married duo perfectly matched in their self-centered worldview, with the film’s strongest scenes underscoring the pair’s deceitful nature. In one of them — the movie’s most memorable thanks to Bozok’s crafty interpretation of Emine’s nonchalant greed — Emine tries to stiff a local needlewoman she’s ordered a custom piece from. In another, Hasan contemptibly attempts to seize a neighbor’s foreclosed land for pittance. Consequently, Kaplanoglu unearths some dark humor in the scenes that follow as the couple practice the ins and outs of their upcoming pilgrimage in a communal class and go on a performative goodwill spree, not because of genuine remorse but due to the demands of Islamic customs.
Kaplanoglu is less successful with conjuring up authentic emotions in the film’s clumsily eerie and serious final act, as Hasan pays a long-overdue visit to his estranged brother, someone he’d heartlessly conned years ago. The director is similarly heavy-handed with his vague metaphoric and thematic visuals throughout — rotting apples, levitating trees, dead cats and an especially on-the-nose shepherd character do very little to meaningfully augment his narrative. In the end, “Commitment Hasan” feels like a worthwhile yet underbaked endeavor that examines the fault lines of personal and religious virtue, one that spawns little curiosity for the next episode in Kaplanoglu’s ongoing trilogy.