In his first few shots, all very wide angles and washed-out greens, Abdullah Oguz shows his cards as an ambitious, technically brilliant filmmaker. In the Anatolian countryside, a flock of sheep turns a slow circle as the camera, peering down on a girl’s body, does the same. A melody—composed by Zülfü Livaneli, who also wrote the book on which this film was based—hums through the valley. A shepherd picks up the girl, and so begins Mutluluk.
The characters in a village drama are executing by rote what, as a character glibly explains later, circumstances demanded: Young Meryem (Özgü Namal) has been raped. Her father reluctantly submits to cousin Ali Riza Amen (Mustafa Avkiran) insistence she be killed to mitigate the family’s shame. When Ali Riza’s son Cemal (Murat Han) returns from military service, he begrudgingly takes the girl to Istanbul in order to carry out his father’s sentence. But he can't carry it out, and after his last-minute change of heart, Cemal and Meryem flee Istanbul and Ali Riza’s henchmen. Aimless after a stint at a remote fishery on the Mediterranean, on a whim the young cousins join a stranger named Irfan (Talat Belet), who has fled his wife and professorship for a yachting joy-ride around the Aegean.
From there, the film devolves into maudlin lectures on beauty, purity, and love, giving its stars little room to develop their broadly drawn characters; Cemal swings between stoically surly and jealously unhinged, Irfan acts predictably free-spirited, and for the most part Meryem hangs back meekly. Fortunately, the lectures are lent some credence by the wide-angle attention that cinematographer Mirsad Herovic pays the seascapes and craggy shores and by the adaptable actors’ still game performances.
However, some of Mutluluk most powerful scenes become its most disappointing because the dramatic confrontations they stage prove neither earned nor transformative. Oguz saves the identity of Meryem’s rapist as a minor and unnecessary shocker for the end, and he pulls too many tricks to convey intensity: sped up tracking shots, sudden switches to black and white, barrages of extreme facial close-ups.
Such clutter is doubly frustrating because Oguz is a gifted storyteller with a knack for expansive imagery—fenced-in fishes, an elevated expressway—and an affection for his characters. Thanks to the tenderness with which he imbues even mundane exchanges, Mutluluk develops almost imperceptibly from a tale of sheltered villagers struggling with imposed moral codes into one of dear friends negotiating their personal senses of duty. While Meryem stumbles headlong past the sites of her rape and would-be murder, the film moves gorgeous and delicately alongside toward some seafaring redemption.