Compassion is in almost as short supply as water in Emin Alper’s sardonic, seething Un Certain Regard breakout “Burning Days,” a parched little parable about small-town corruption in chokingly patriarchal rural Turkey. Beginning and ending on the lip of a massive sinkhole on the village outskirts, and featuring a manhunt that echoes a wild boar hunt and a mirage-like lake whose waters may or may not be toxic, here, the cool filmmaking is subtler than the metaphors. But then, with mass detentions during the recent Turkish Pride celebrations still in the headlines, when it comes to homophobia, misogyny, masculine crisis and the other attendant cruelties of this strongman-led society, these are not subtle times.
A more genre-inflected movie than Alper’s Berlinale competition title “A Tale of Three Sisters” (which makes it also more accessible than the overtly Chekhovian theatricality of Turkey’s other Cannes darling, Nuri Bilge Ceylan), “Burning Days” benefits from Alper’s sparse, boiled-dry screenplay and from DP Christos Karamanis’s casually devastating widescreen photography. In an emblematically sweeping shot, under the sinister insinuations of Stefan Will’s excellent score, we’re introduced to Emre (Selahattin Paşali), the ambitious young prosecutor newly posted to this drought-ridden backwater, as he gazes into the extinction-level crater outside town, alongside local judge Zeynep (Seli̇n Yeninci).
Whether the sinkhole was preventable — and whether the groundwater drilling that may have caused it can continue — is one of the cases Emre’s office will be investigating. This will likely put him at loggerheads with the local bigwig whose mayoral re-election campaign is founded on promises of solving the municipal water crisis. With a brow as smooth as the cuffs of his crisply ironed shirts, Emre stands out amid the crumpled codes of masculine behavior that rule this tinpot kingdom. When he expresses his reservations about attending a dinner at the mayor’s house, Zeynep responds with a shrug and a sly, private smile. Such conflicts of interest are simply the way things are done around here.
Sure enough, the mayor’s son Sahin (Erol Babaoglu) and his grinning, obsequious sidekick Kemal (Erdem Şenocak) show up almost immediately at Emre’s office, ostensibly to welcome him, but really to sound him out. Their bloke-ish jocularity falls on deaf ears: Emre all but drips urbane disdain for these local bumpkins with their locker-room talk of brothels and boar-hunting escapades. Still, despite the cryptic warning issued by Murat (Ekin Koç), the handsome editor of the opposition newspaper, Emre goes to that fateful dinner with the mayor. He wakes up the next day with a blackout raki hangover and hazily incomplete memories of the evening, which culminated in the violent rape of Peknez (Eylul Ersoz), the slow-witted Roma girl who had shown up to dance for the men late on.
What makes “Burning Days” such an unusually engrossing crime thriller from here on is the way it operates on parallel tracks, with Emre simultaneously wanting to bring the rapist(s) to justice, while also suppressing any emerging evidence of his own potential involvement in the crime. Paşali’s smolderingly ambivalent performance is key to making Emre’s turmoil so compelling as he devolves from the crusading, if stiffly officious, outsider of a genre western into the personally compromised antihero of a film noir. That all of this is set against a backdrop of his own barely-acknowledged homosexuality, in a town where even the rumor of same-sex attraction is enough to confer pariah status, only adds further levels of personal and professional confusion to the heady brew.
In graphic terms, Alper resolutely downplays the story’s queer themes, suggesting the developing attraction between Emre and Murat with little more than a few stolen glances and an illicit drunken dance session. This displays a canny awareness of just what will pass muster on screens in the filmmaker’s native land, but it leaves “Burning Days” feeling a little tamer than necessary for international audiences primed for more explicit arthouse-genre fusions. Similarly, that Turkey’s patriarchal politics foster a deeply entrenched misogyny is a point eloquently if a little too easily made by the story’s own sidelining of its female characters. Peknez, the rape victim, is from a marginalized community and is deliberately coded as mentally challenged, which accounts for how casually her personhood is ignored by the powerful men of the village. But it also makes her a narratively convenient way for Alper to generate tension, given that Emre can’t remember the evening and Peknez is at best an unreliable witness to her own violation.
As a woman who has risen to a position of some prominence in this cruelly chauvinist town, Zeynep has potentially the most interesting backstory here, but is also underdeveloped as a character. Such storytelling choices make “Burning Days” a curiously diplomatic artefact of the very aspects of contemporary Turkish culture it most pointedly critiques. Still, these omissions and prevarications are small missed opportunities in an otherwise scorchingly smart, superbly crafted thriller, in which the morality is blurry with heat haze, but the real lines that divide society are starkly defined: Out here, you are either corrupt or complicit, or collateral for those who are.