As frequently artful as it is woefully dour, Küf, the debut feature from Turkish filmmaker Ali Aydin, operates as both character study and elongated funeral procession. Its central figure, Basri, played with a unique implosiveness by Ercan Kesal, is an over-the-hill Anatolian widower who's spent the last 18 years doggedly searching for his son, Seyfi, a young man presumably picked up in Istanbul for anti-government protests. In what you may certainly take as a nod to this movie's no-rush pacing, Basri lives like a petrified snail, his insides nearly as hardened as his weathered shell, and his slow, quotidian existence marked by railroad work and the writing of petitions, which he sends to government and local police, inquiring about his son. Kesal, who was recently seen in Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (a film to which this one is bound to be excessively compared), gives a performance that's unassumingly compelling, at once draped in melancholy and menace. A chain-smoker, hunched over and often clad in a heavy coat, Basri looks like he's desperate for a hug, but also like he might murder whoever makes the attempt. All that drives him is his paternal quest for answers, which has slowly poisoned him while giving him purpose.
Decidedly tough on both his audience and his protagonist, 31-year-old Aydin—who, in press notes, claims to have been as much inspired by the brooding works of Dostoyevsky as by real-life Basris of the 1990s—is perhaps too somber in his approach, not to mention contradictory, as he mounts a story that's propelled by hope, yet all but wrung dry of it in virtually every scene. From the start, it's rather evident that Basri's tale won't end happily, and Aydin struggles to straddle the line between thoughtful mood piece and tedious miserablism. But the director does offer some relief in his aesthetic, staging static shots that are as handsome as they are character-confining, while alternately filling frames with doorways, arches, and, of course, train tracks, providing Basri with what might be read as exits from his torment—exits he just can't bring himself to take. Shot by cinematographer Murat Tuncel, Küf also takes in the details and machinations of its setting, holding steady on urban activity, or lack thereof, even after its key subjects have left the camera's gaze. It's one of multiple tools Aydin uses to successfully create a sense of place, another being the radio Basri carries around obsessively, his yearning for possible breaking news about his son reaping benefits for the viewer, who gains incidental cultural and political insights.
Küf's strongest elements may be its seemingly aimless subplots, which are essentially dismissed just as they're introduced, with minimal warning or explanation. One involves Basri's dirtbag co-worker, Cemil (Tansu Biçer), an apparent alcoholic who inexplicably badgers Basri, and whom Basri catches in an act of rape and leaves with a battered face. Another is Basri's abruptly revealed epilepsy, which rightly manifests in startling, disorienting fits, and gives Aydin more opportunity to flex some formal muscle (the aural and the visual mirror Basri's episodic distress). Viewed from a distance, Basri's every plight seems like an outgrowth of his long-festering grief—external and internal repercussions of years of dread and uncertainty. Stingingly, where his journey ultimately takes him isn't to a place of relief but of even further discomfort, a bookend to match an opening, single-take shot that's squirm-inducing in length, and sees Basri profess his case to Murat, a policeman played by Muhammet Uzuner, also of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Like the title, which translates to "Mold," the ending suggests a type of negative growth, one that deteriorates as it advances.