Does anyone who isn’t Turkish watch Turkish film? They should. I don’t really either, but I’ll be watching more. I’ve been familiar with Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films for a little while, but am new to Reha Erdem thanks to my friend Ali who gave me this DVD.
Kosmos is like a puzzle that doesn’t want to be solved and may well have no answer. Though it offers hints along the way, it is in fact much more successful without an answer. The questions and issues it raises are too complex to be simply summed up.
Kosmos follows Battal (also called Kosmos, but for the sake of differentiating title and character, we’ll go with the first name he uses – played by Sermet Yesil) as he arrives in a village. The film opens with him running breathlessly and at full speed – afraid. He saves a child from drowning, literally bringing him back to life, and is temporarily welcomed into the area.
My go-to movie connections for the “foreigner disrupting the balance film” are Pasolini’s Teorema and Miike’s loose remake of that film, Visitor Q. There certainly is much of the Pasolini film in Kosmos: spiritual themes, a pervasive sexuality/sensuality, and a microcosmic presentation. If Kosmos has a genre it would be spiritual-feral-science-fiction.
Against the backdrop of a violent border skirmish that is constantly heard but never seen, Battal preaches his odd philosophy to the patrons of the local tea room, chases women, and performs miracles. His philosophy is one of the flesh: live now, love now, work is for sinners. He cures a woman of her migraines, shows no scar from a recent cigarette burn and cures a man of his constant cough. His reputation builds and soon the sick are knocking at his door. After being accosted by an old woman in an alley he somewhat reluctantly cures her son of his muteness.
But this isn’t all Battal does. He also breaks into local shops and steals money. Though he does, at one point, give the money to a man in dire need, this isn’t a Robin Hood situation. He steals to pay for his tea. He also steals to buy pills for a woman whom he believes needs them for her lame leg. The turning point and climax of the third act is when he discovers that she is merely an addict, and that the pills have nothing to do with her mangled leg.
Strewn intermittently throughout Kosmos are sequences comparing Battal to a wild animal. When not smiling innocently or preaching, he is howling like an animal, scaling trees, and roaring ferociously. Shots of slaughtered cows and ravenous wolves are crosscut throughout, driving this comparison home.
So these are our clues: Battal is foreigner, healer, preacher, lover, and animal. He talks about fear of God, but his actions seem hedonistic as well as generous. Is this a parable of biblical proportions? Maybe. SPOILERS here: At the same moment that Battal learns that the woman whose lame leg is an addict and not striving to get better, those he cured previously begin to die. The woman with the migraines commits suicide. The boy dies of an unnamed illness. The viewer can only assume that the coughing man will be soon to go next. What’s the message here? A somewhat Christian interpretation might say that the woman was not “treating her body as a temple” (the pills), and this leads Battal to revoke his generosity to humanity. This seems logical in a religious sense (can that be logical?). But it’s undermined when we see Battal’s reactions to the death – he is naive and unaware.
Battal is aware of his powers, but not generous with them. He avoids his home when he sees a line of the sick and disfigured outside. What is his purpose in the town? He says it’s to love, and this he does, with the sister of the boy he saved from drowning. She too acts like a wild animal. What is their relationship? Why do they both connect? And why, in one specifically beautiful scene that pays homage to Bertolucci, are they both endowed with superhuman, animalistic traits?
Here’s two more questions: why does Erdem, on two occasions, suddenly jump the image into static, as though the “signal” is being interrupted? Why does he mingle the natural soundtrack with a mechanical one? And why is there a scene of a strange ship crashing? Okay, that’s three questions. These elements point to an intersection of some unearthly science, some interruption of nature, and a “back-to-basics” look at Battal’s savageness.
I really wish I had answers. I can say this much. The film ends with a shot of Battal again running, afraid for his life. It’s cyclical, leading an audience to believe that, at the beginning of the film, he came from another village where a similar series of events took place. Either that or he is caught in an endless cycle. This last interpretation has more validity than just the first and last shot:
There are multiple shots to clocks throughout the film. Most of the times the clock hands are visibly frozen. They even stutter in two shots. Only once does a clock advance and even then it is slight, and only after the shot lingers. The perpetual, unseen nature of the war also seems to be a commentary on its endlessness (i.e. its cyclical nature). Are these all related? Is Erdem pointing to some kind of a time warp where, just as Battal is doomed to repeat this action, so too is Turkey doomed to continue its neighboring border wars? There are several references to foreign intrusion. Battal is clearly the foreigner in the film.
More about the final shot of the film (which is really quite clever): As Battal runs into the distance, the camera tilts slowly up to the heavens. Since Battal also goes by the name Kosmos, it functions as a tilt from Kosmos to cosmos (read: Battal = the heavens?). There is a very subtle but effective time change over the course of this tilt. When we reach the height of the camera move we have shifted from day (on the ground) to night (in the heavens). A giant, perfectly full moon rests in the foreground. And suddenly, like a spaceship, like the thing that crashed during the course of the film, it zips away into the distance. Are we even on earth? Is the world ending? Is Kosmos/Battal a representation of destruction and death (a naive representation at that)? I don’t know. But: Kosmos is stunningly rendered in gorgeous wide-shots, its questions, while obscure, are always compelling, the acting is fantastic, and the sound is consistently and effectively loud and overwhelming.
This is cinema to experience and to interpret loosely.