In Sivas, a wayward boy sees himself in his adopted canine companion

In this Turkish drama, a subtle sense of aimlessness permeates the life of an eleven year-old boy, Aslan. From the opening scene, it quickly becomes apparent that Aslan is something of a latchkey kid. Some of his family members do make appearances throughout the film, but their apathetic demeanor toward him suggests that his presence or absence is of little consequence. A similar dynamic is at play between Aslan and his classmates, though there is more conflict between them. Even Aslan’s teacher carries himself with an aura of indifference. In one scene, Aslan pays his teacher a visit at home in an effort to persuade him to give Aslan a leading role in the school play. The visit interrupts Aslan’s teacher from whatever explicit adult activity is implied by audible moans of pleasure in the background. Thus, time and time again, we see that Aslan is deprived of the opportunity to have meaningful relationships with peers and adults. Disconnection is woven into the fabric of Aslan’s life.

When opportunities for human connection are tenuous, at best, where does one turn? For Aslan, the answer is companionship with a dog he adopts as his own. He attends a dogfight and bears witness to the brutality of such a blood sport. The loser of the fight is presumed to be dead. But, Aslan is intrigued and sticks around to discover that the dog is still alive. The parallel between the defeated canine and Aslan himself is painfully obvious to anyone who has even a semblance of emotional intelligence. Both the boy and the dog live in a callous world defined by detachment. Aslan finds himself drawn to the fallen canine and he quickly develops a fierce sense of loyalty to the animal. Despite his brother’s insistence that the dog is dead, Aslan demands to bring the dog home with him and refuses to leave his side. In yet another act of brazen indifference, Aslan’s brother leaves Aslan behind with the dog only to return well after dusk to retrieve him. Aslan stands firm and the dog comes home with him.

One critic argued that the storytelling in Sivas was “less rewarding, taking rather too long to get into gear” and another describes the film as “a well-shot if slight story.” But, isn’t that the point? Part of what contributes to the atmosphere of the film is the sense that the world around Aslan remains stagnant despite Aslan’s wishes for more engagement with those around him. One might argue that only two characters in this narrative display a full range of human emotion: Aslan and his dog. The responses of all of the others in this film paint a barren emotional landscape befitting of a major depressive episode. Perhaps that is why they resort to dog-fighting as a means of entertainment. They need to literally see living creatures kill each other in order to feel alive. While the critiques linked above may have merit, one can’t help but wonder if a richer narrative would rob the film of the ability to convey a stark aesthetic. Though I am typically a fan of multilayered narratives, the so-called “thin” storytelling in Sivas achieves an artistic purpose I can appreciate.

Opponents of animal cruelty or the faint of heart may have trouble viewing some of the dog-fighting scenes in this film. Despite this, the film is beautifully shot and Doğan İzci’s performance as Aslan is nothing short of remarkable. If you can stomach it, this film is worth watching. It is now showing on MUBI, a curated streaming service for cinephiles.


Ixcanul tragically depicts a life out of reach

Although it has been categorized as a coming-of-age drama, Ixcanul feels more like an understated tragedy. Viewed from the vantage point of its young protagonist, Maria, it is not difficult to envision what volcanic emotions might be bubbling beneath the surface for her. Throughout the film, we see glimpses of Maria’s wishes flash before us only to see her desires thwarted at every turn.

Filmed in a rural Guatemalan village against the backdrop of a volcano, Maria is a girl who lives on a coffee plantation with her parents. As the film opens, we see Maria’s mother preparing Maria for her wedding. It isn’t a wedding of her choosing; her marriage to the foreman of the plantation has been arranged and it is painfully obvious that she does not feel good about the whole affair. Yet, despite obvious signs of displeasure, Maria is thoroughly ignored by everyone in her family. Her lack of enthusiasm and even her somatic symptoms are summarily dismissed as mere nervousness. For the men involved, Maria’s marriage is merely a matter of tradition and business. Her strife doesn’t even register on their radar, which is perfectly epitomized by one scene where Maria’s father asks her mother to move their daughter farther away from them because Maria’s vomiting is keeping her father awake.

Perhaps most striking, however, is how women are enlisted in maintaining the patriarchal order. Maria’s mother plays a central role in nearly every significant narrative development, from a failed attempt to induce an abortion to her efforts to conceal an illicit pregnancy from her husband-to-be. A simplistic narrative would draw a straight line between the dominance of the men in the village and the compliance of the women. But, what this film does masterfully is situate the patriarchal elements of this society within a cultural and socioeconomic context that adds layers of complexity to the narrative. The mother is not behaving in a manner that is incongruent with her values or beliefs when she tries, in vain, to manage her daughter’s affairs. Her responses to her daughter are tender and caring while also falling in line with cultural scripts for women of her time and place. There are, perhaps, few scenes in contemporary cinema as warm and intimate as those where Maria’s mother is shown bathing her pregnant daughter. The love is clearly there. Yet, cultural and religious edicts prevail in assuming complete control over Maria, thus squashing her innate curiousity and hunger for a different life. For Maria, such a life remains out of reach.

In addition to a richly textured narrative, Ixcanul features beautiful cinematography and a view of a social and cultural context we rarely see portrayed in film. Despite the musings of at least one critic, I did not find the pace of the plot to be slow, though viewers who prefer Hollywood blockbusters would likely become impatient. Overall, I highly recommend this film, which is now showing on MUBI.