Hungary/Turkey (2011) Dir. Ferenc Török
Housewife Katalin Munk (Johanna ter Steege) has her world torn apart when her lecturer husband János (Andor Lukáts) arrives home to tell her that he’s leaving her for a younger student of his. Katalin falls into a state of shock and wanders about the streets of Budapest in just her dressing gown carrying a pair of scissors. After a series of misadventures, Katalin eventually ends up in Turkey, where suddenly Katalin is awakened and decides to start a new life after meeting local man Hilal (Yavuz Bingol). Meanwhile her son Zoli (Norbert Varga) tries to hunt Katalin down.
To describe this film as a European arthouse version of Shirley Valentine is as lazy as it is inaccurate. Hungarian director Ferenc Török brings us a low key and subtle tale that is less a woman rebelling against her old life and more a woman finding herself in spite of her old life. Unlike the aforementioned British comedy this film is steeped in a deeper reality as the cast are, for wanting a better term, not overtly glamorous or exceptionally attractive thus their middle aged romance is considerably more believable.
The focus of the story is shared between Katalin’s journey and the after effects of the split on the family. Katalin’s response to the shock news of János leaving her is too fall silent before immersing herself in mundane tasks with an emotionless and almost robotic fashion. Finally, after cutting the leaves of a pot plant, Katalin finally snaps inside, although her exterior remains soporific, as she roves about Budapest in an absent minded trance, embarking on a run of seemingly unlikely incidents en route to her final destination of Instanbul. Katalin manages to board a train, staying put until the terminal where the concerned driver takes her to a hospital from which Katalin escapes from. She is picked up by a Romanian truck driver who has ideas other than giving her a lift which finally galvanises Katalin to stand up for herself, leading her to bus heading for Turkey, where she meets Hilal – who is married but is smitten by Katalin – while looking for somewhere to stay, suggesting the hotel he often stays.
Back in Budapest, Katalin’s daughter Zsófi (Réka Tenki) goes into labour shortly after Katalin disappears, leaving Zoli to search for his mother and bring her home with János funding the search. In typical arrogant fashion, János tells his son that the marriage was over, they were both bored with each other and that it was a mutual agreed split. Even Zoli isn’t naïve enough to believe this based on his mother’s uncharacteristic behaviour. János even has the nerve to suggest that Katalin’s reaction is a result of her being sick, a horrendously selfish way to deflect culpability away from himself that no-one buys, least of all his new love Juli (Eszter Bánfalvy) who quickly dumps him.
The second half of the film in which Katalin acclimatises herself with her Turkish surroundings offers the viewer an insight into their unique culture and traditions. In one scene early in the relationship, Katalin visits Halil at his place of work, in this case a building site. He immediately grimaces in horror and embarrassment then takes Katalin aside to sternly rebuke her for her actions. Apparently such actions are frowned upon in Turkey, especially for philanderers in case their workmates have loose tongues. Despite both knowing the score of Halil’s marital status they manage to find a mutual solace in each other. A close call one night in the hotel tells us all we need to know about their feelings in a scene that is both tender and a little tragic.
Subtlety is the key to the film and while things move at a gentle pace, it never stands still during its 95 minutes. Johanna ter Steege turns in a fabulously understated and incisive performance on the emotional front, taking her character from dumbstruck victim to strong independent woman with aplomb. She also was working with the significant handicap of not speaking Hungarian and presumably not Turkish either, causing a script re-writer to leave her with few lines, most of which are English or German. This does nothing to hamper the power of this emotive performance in which she bares herself to the audience as a middle aged woman, comfortable in her aging skin when she starts to turn heads of the middle aged men in Turkey. Yavuz Bingol is equally engaging as the paunchy Hilal, a man who knows he is risking so much but hooking up with Katalin but finds her to be more than a physical escapist fling.
Turkey makes for a pleasant and different setting for this story, a humble and languid Mediterranean alternative to the bustle and go of suburban Hungary, and is captured in all its glory to make for an inviting holiday destination (ironic as it sounds considering current situations over there). Ferenc Török uses both locations to great effect to reflect the differing atmospheres and how they play into Katalin’s change of moods and self esteem.
A familiar story given a more insightful twist as it explores the personal effects of a marriage break up in a naturalistic and restrained fashion, Isztambul deserves credit for eschewing heavy melodrama for nuanced and affecting storytelling. A simple film with modest aspirations that could have reached a bit higher but delivers a watchable tale nonetheless.