If Feo Aladag’s shrill, soapy When We Leave is able to repeat its festival-circuit success with the U.S. theatrical press and AMPAS (it’s Germany’s official Oscar submission), it’ll likely be due to the feisty, termitic performance at its center. Sibel Kekilli, playing the scrawny, battered, Turkish-German mother Umay, deserves attention primarily for resisting the plodding stateliness of Aladag’s neophyte directing. Even in the wordless opening, which blinks us from a vague flash forward of violence to a cool gray hospital room where Umay lies in anticipation, the film apes the anticlimactic mood fetishism of Blue while seemingly forgetting Krzysztof Kieślowski’s subtle emotional cues. What follows isn’t much more encouraging; the new director admirably avoids mirroring the storyline’s physical turbulence with the churning grit of handheld photography, but the meditative camera angles and vibrantly burnt colors palettes make When We Leave one of the few eastern European woman’s issues films to be shot like a designer catalogue.
Still, it’s fun to watch Kekilli sexily chew through the pressboard plot Aladag’s situated her in. A young mother living with her brutish husband’s family in Istanbul at the film’s start, Umay retreats to her home country with son Cem (Nizam Schiller) in tow after aborting a prospective second child to protect it from her less-than-ideal domestic circumstances. Once in Berlin, however, she finds her Muslim fundamentalist mother (Derya Alabora) and father (Settar Tanriogen) so ashamed of the imminent divorce that they’re ready to decry their daughter as a whore and hang their heads before the staunch conservativism of their community. Following suit, Umay’s older alpha-male brother, Mehmet (Tamer Yigit), would rather see her dead and Cem with his daddy, while a young and more effeminate male sibling, Acar (Serhad Can), continues to uphold the rigidity of their family values despite apparent inner conflict. Umay’s forced to orchestrate escape once again, and the remainder of the film follows her attempts to puncture the curtain of tradition that’s blocking reconciliation with her parents.
The small epiphany enabled by Kekilli’s furtive teardrops and tiny, hesitant smiles is that returning to a reliably abusive situation can be a kind of political act, if a thankless one. Umay’s nonviolent resistance to her parents’ scorn lacks persuasion—she’s simply hoping that the cosmic bond between them will win out over Islam’s misogyny—and the film’s final third grows tiresome with the number of rejections her reductive appeals to personal ethics receive. (In the movie’s most garishly melodramatic scene, Umay crashes her younger sister’s arranged marriage and weeps that her son might know his bloodline; Mehmet promptly drags her out, streaking the ground beneath her with supercilious saliva.) Implied by these plucky gestures, however, is an optimistic revisionism: In spite of the bruises on her back, she’s not forsaking the dogma of Islam so much as repudiating those who abuse it. (In another key scene, Umay visits her father on Ramadan to participate in the holiday’s piety, only to be again turned away.) And when she starts dating a lanky Aryan who also works at the restaurant that’s employed her, her modestly girlish excitement is a token of her resilience. The beatings she’s suffered haven’t jarred her from the jejune pleasure of coquettish lust.
The bluntness of Umay’s strength, however, requires the focus of a more intelligent supporting cast than the assembly of TV stock types Aladag provides. Umay’s husband and older brother are irascible sexists without a great deal of humanity; the former, for example, seemingly alternates between forcing himself on his wife and giddily playing with Cem. It’s clear, of course, that Umay’s immediate family are confusedly remorseful of their actions at some level, but this never rises above a moment’s pause before a slap is thrown, or a pained look after a Turkish slur is uttered; Aladag mistakes a cheaply “this hurts me more than it hurts you” psychology for moral ambiguity. Much more piquant but unfortunately overlooked is the manner in which Umay and her bilingual kin speak German rather than Turkish when they’re at their most vulnerable, a linguistic peculiarity that recalls Faith Akin’s gnarled meditations on identity.
The ending naturally proffers a sacrificial lamb of sorts that’s intended to expose the futility of the hateful customs on display, and the innocents they spurn. The unlikelihood and abruptness of the killing, however, renders Umay’s struggle as pointless as the yonic fear she’s pitted against. Much like her protagonist, Aladag seeks to simply acknowledge the need for change rather than leading a path toward enlightenment, but just as Umay’s faith in human nature yields her precious little, the twisted logic of the movie’s “freak accident” finale fails to usefully illuminate the plight of Muslim women marked by fists or shrouded by burqas. Ultimately, this clunky denouement reveals that When We Leave is far less than its socio-political relevance would suggest: This might be the most self-deluded shaggy dog tale ever filmed.