Hayat: An obsessive Turkish tale about love and desperation

Hayat: An obsessive Turkish film about love and destruction
5 min read
22 March, 2024

One of the most prominent voices of contemporary Turkish cinema, filmmaker Zeki Demurkubuz is hitting the big screen again with a new drama, Hayat.

The 59-year-old, Isparta-born helmer is best known for films such as Innocence (1997), Destiny (2006), Inside (2012), Ember (2016) and his Mental Minefields: The Dark Tales trilogy (2001-2003).

Premiered in 2023, Hayat was recently showcased in the Harbour section of this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, which ran from 25 January to 4 February.

The premise of Hayat sees young Riza Uysal (Burak Dakak) decide to travel to Istanbul to look for his fiancée Hicran (Miray Daner). The girl has mysteriously left town, breaking off their arranged engagement without explanation. We realise that Riza barely knows the woman, but her image and beauty consume him, leading him to put his sanity on the line.

"Demirkubuz chooses to gift the spectators with a rewarding ending, however, the way it is staged looks a bit too stretched"

The story can be divided into three parts. The first part focuses on Riza’s inner struggles and the quest to find Hicran; the second zooms in on Hicran’s destiny and the bold life choices she makes; finally, the third one serves as a short epilogue.

In each scene, the Turkish director attempts to go deep into his characters’ psyche – up to the point that some of these scenes work better as standalone stories, rather than as smaller parts of a wider narrative.

For this reason, he lets his characters engage in very long dialogues, as well as in very long silences. For the Turkish helmer, there’s time for everything, and everything should come at the right time.

Turkish cinema's new wave

This approach allows Demirkubuz to unpack the true nature of most of the characters he shows on screen. His quasi-obsessive exploration is visible in minor characters as well.

For example, a friend who hosts Riza while in Istanbul doesn’t attend university as his parents would expect, and seems not to worry about the consequences of hiding his secret. “What will come out [of it], man? This is Turkey. Here, people believe what they want to believe,” he tells Riza, delivering one of the most hard-hitting lines of the film.

This level of depth can be also found in co-leads such as Osman Alkas and Cem Davran, who portray Riza’s grandfather and an old retired teacher called Orhan, respectively.

For example, through bold leaps in time, we find out that Orhan is a lonely widow, who wishes to have full control of his life and that of others. “Everyone needs order… Even animals need to find it,” he tells Hicran while they are having dinner in a fancy restaurant together. He is also aware that the girl might never fall in love with him, owing to their age difference and contrasting personalities: “I don’t need reciprocity. All I need is you to like me."

Hayat foregrounds the strange and sudden turns that life can take
Hayat follows the strange and sudden turns that life can take 

Hayat is hard to label. We can safely say that the patriarchal and existential dimensions play a prominent role throughout, even though the film features a powerful female leading character. In sum, it is a drama about love, self-destruction and oppression.

On the whole, the pacing is very slow, and the acting is very naturalistic. The Turkish director’s gaze is unusual as it follows the characters from many different PoVs, but also observes – or stares at – some props and other small details. Moreover, some of the characters’ conversations are filmed as if the camera is spying on them. And, almost every sequence is wrapped by a gentle fade-to-black transition.

These are all fascinating aesthetic choices, which prove fairly effective when it comes to creating a feeling of estrangement, but perhaps less functional in terms of empathy and intimacy with the audience.

The picture lasts 193 minutes and, frankly, it feels like quite a long run for a tale of this kind. It is surely an intimate epic which requires a deep exploration of its characters and their vicissitudes.

This would likely struggle to be confined within the boundaries of a traditional 90-minute feature. Nevertheless, sacrificing part of the film’s organic, life-like tempo and developing the story over a shorter time could have been beneficial to keep the viewers hooked and make some key scenes resonate more with them.

Live Story

Technical credits are smooth. The score is often rarefied, but well-dosed; the cinematography, lensed by Cevahir Sahin and Kursat Uresin, seems to carefully follow the instructions imposed by Demirkubuz’s vision.

Overall, the performances are solid. However, Hicran’s constant feeling of hopelessness makes Daner’s acting undeniably a bit too flat. The closure of the narrative arc justifies – at least in part – this choice, but a wider display of emotions would have given her character more complexity and lovability.

Demirkubuz chooses to gift the spectators with a rewarding ending, however, the way it is staged looks a bit too stretched. Ultimately, the very last sentence pronounced by one of the characters conveys the whole meaning of this film, with clarity and simplicity.

Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Rome

Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni