Turkey / 2006 / Turkish

Directed by Özer Kızıltan

With Erkan Can, Güven Kiraç, Meray Ülgen

Still from 'Takva'Muharrem is a follower, in every sense of the word. Middle-aged and solitary, he works as peon for a plastic bag merchant. In the evenings, he joins throngs of men at the mosque of the Sufi sect to which he belongs. Of this world but not in it, he follows God with a similar degree of subservience, living a gray, spartan life in his tiny apartment, and abstaining from any contact with women. He drinks tea, but only makes coffee for his (very infrequent) guests. Thus he keeps his world hermetic, and therefore clean.

Unlike the higher-ups in the religious brotherhood, he’s not ostentatious about his devotion. He doesn’t use it to gain leverage or accolades, but could be the most purely, simplistically devout one around, more of a monk than any of the monks at the mosque. Nor does he rub his piety in anyone’s face; it is for himself alone, quietly gathering points towards paradise. He doesn’t, as a rule, act high or mighty with those who are less pure, the sinners and merchants who crowd the streets. A life of scurrying, of puttering around obsequiously, a hunched-over life, has made him simply avoid the people he fears.

But lately his dreams have been plagued by nightmarish mash-ups of all the things he has painstakingly avoided: money, pleasure, success – they all come from the sinful world outside, and so get grotesquely conflated in his subconscious. He dreams he is having sex with a young and beautiful woman, rolling on a pile of cash money in a strange penthouse apartment that is filled with mannequins. He wakes up to find he’s had a nocturnal emission.

The obsessive limiting of his life and environment, a shelter maintained through controlled solitude, gets loosened suddenly when the order decides to invite him to become their gofer/accountant. The Sheikh, the head of the order, sends his assistant, Rauf, to ask Muharrem to come on board. This would mean leaving his home and moving to the mosque. Previously, they have never asked him for anything but to show up to their services every night, chant and sway, rapt, with the other members of the sect. Doing integral, day-to-day tasks for the men he follows is almost too high an honor to be true. Almost without taking pause, he leaves his family home, consoling himself with the thought that, while he is leaving behind the spirits of his parents, he is moving in with the spirits of great Sufis of the past.

His tasks include collecting rent from the many properties owned by the brotherhood, and shuffling to and from the bank. The reason for why the order wants him to work for them is expressed in their treatment of him. They say that, as spiritual men, they can’t be directly involved with handling money. That’s why they need a layperson who is pious and trustworthy, and – more importantly – who won’t ask questions. Ergo the dull and incredibly naive Muharrem. But, of course, his devotion does cause him to start asking questions, about ethics and about what God would want, and thus he is introduced to the world of gray areas, of ambiguity, something he had not previously allowed himself to know – and which, as it it turns out, the order thrives on.

Never having been “in” in an elite, he doesn’t know much about how it operates. This runs him into a few faux pas. For example, the Sheikh has to scold him for hiring repairmen who are not members of the order. Like many religious minorities, they try to only associate and do business with their own, whenever possible. So the money they use is kept pure. They forbid him from doing electronic transfers, because the bank uses the money to do sinful things. (Investing is tantamount to gambling). He has to go in person to the bank, but never has to wait in line because of the privilege of working for the order. It seems more likely that the reason for why they have him do all this the old-fashioned way is so that their assets aren’t traceable.

Still from 'Takva'In spite of all this, Muharrem’s bosses – the Sheikh and the people who work for him – are not opposed to making money off of regular, sinful people. The film doesn’t give much indication of illegal activity; morally questionable yes, and maybe moderately hypocritical, but not more than that. When Muharrem expresses shame that he has seen a female tenant dressed in revealing clothes, the Sheikh calms him down by saying that it’s not his concern, that it is between the woman and God. Later, when he reacts to seeing some mechanics drinking alcohol in a garage owned by the order, his bosses grudgingly let him evict the men.

After his shock at these encounters with the outside world has worn off, his (extremely limited) power tripping begins. All this time he has kept his job with the bag merchant, but needs to hire an underling for himself to handle the work. There’s an interesting side-bar in the young man he hires for the job, whom he immediately sets about bossing around. When the merchant is out of the office, he uses the man’s desk to work through the brotherhood’s reams of complicated finances. When the merchant is at work, calls and visits suddenly start flooding in for Muharrem. “Now I’m that idiot’s secretary,” he quips.

Muharrem tells his new employee, a Kosovar immigrant, to cut his hair and clean up. He later has an encounter where he lectures the young man, who has seen and lived through extreme violence in his short life. “You have to thank the Creator when He doesn’t show you the way,” Muharrem espouses, vaguely. He tries to sound as sanctimonious as the Sheikh, but the contradictions come out as quickly as the words, and it’s all too apparent. It seems as though, even after a lifetime of believing in God’s wisdom, he can’t even channel a bit of conviction in that.

There’s something about Muharrem that recalls the purpose-bred humans in Jack Vance’s sci-fi novel City of the Chasch. “Men are as plastic as wax,” one of them muses, cynically, to another; men can be melded, molded and, if the going gets hot enough, melted down. Likewise Muharrem’s superiors reshape him in a new persona. What appeared to be a self-contained, self-supporting cocoon, is in fact a cobwebbed bed of vulnerability, hollow enough to be filled in with whatever. His lack of reflection and understanding makes him all the more malleable.

The Sheikh and Rauf have now shaped him after a new image, not their own, of course, or anyone who could challenge their power in the brotherhood, but rather, their idea of how their servant should be. And he adapts to the new set of priorities and expectations. They clothe him in sharp, Western attire; no more faded sweater and beanie cap. They give him things that he never had before: a phone, a watch, a driver, a new set of prayer beads. Ostentation. When he expresses misgivings about these showy things, Rauf responds, “you must reflect his [the Sheikh’s] wisdom, and the wealth and blessing of our brotherhood.” The new Muharrem walks with confidence, verbally cutting down people he sees as frivolous or impious.

Eventually the Sheikh consults with Rauf, saying he’s decided that they need to marry off Muharrem, a middle-aged celibate, in order to valve his sexual energy. It seems they know him better than he knows himself, but when the Sheikh offers his daughter to Muharrem, it turns out that marriage is one line that the man will not cross. Meanwhile the visions of that young woman keep haunting him. He sees her when he is out in the marketplace. She is never a person, but an object to be feared or furtively desired, all of his anxiety made visible. The trippy, Easy Rider-esque dreams also don’t abate either, but only get more feverish. It feels as if, in his new life as the errand boy for the brotherhood, he is closer than ever to those sins that before seemed so distant and strange.

Based on a folktale in which a religious adherent refuses a spiritual leader’s offer of his daughter’s hand in marriage, Takva takes us down to the basic meaning (or meanings) of its titular word: it’s a word than can mean devotion, but can also mean fear of God. There’s effectively no difference. Standing up to the depravity of the world and standing strong against it aren’t expressions of might and mercy, but the fear of something far worse guiding you. It doesn’t lend itself to a belief in inner strength and ability, but rather the proclivity to be led, to adhere to the strength of others.

Still from 'Takva'The breakdown that Muharrem experiences is too much of an easy out, both for the character and the filmmakers. It suggests, in a way that is beyond believable, that a person’s worldview can be so precariously-structured that he would sooner collapse, mentally and physically, than allow it to be reshuffled at all. Outside of religious parables, people (and conservative males in particular) are fused to their beliefs only insofar as they give them control, either over others’ lives, or (more commonly) their own. Men will kill and destroy, no doubt about that, but, ultimately, less for their beliefs and more for control. They defend the beliefs inasmuch as they are defending their own relative power. Or they are simply trying to fit into a conservative environment. Ostensibly secular Turkey is the right setting for this type of story because its conservatism comes from capitalism, and its apparent religious tolerance from a need to subjugate.

The film attempts to be a fantasy that proves the reality, and, as a parable, it works; it follows a neat little parable path. But then it deluges that path with mud and becomes slippery. In a religious fable, the central character is there to demonstrate something or other in the value system they’re representing. Apparently they are learning something about God or about people. (At least that’s the supposition: there’s not much in the way of character psychology to understand what they’ve learned or thought). In Takva the character melts down rather than learn something about the world. It’s an unbelievable illustration that carries a valid critique of society, and not only of religion.

The context is religion but the commentary is wider: if we obey because we’re afraid of what will happen otherwise, our values don’t have a very good foundation. At their best-maintained, they’re a facade, one that will fall off if the ground shakes. Such a system doesn’t cultivate strength – it feeds off of weakness, off of want. Devotion in general can be toward basic normative values, to our laws or to money. And perhaps a good foundation doesn’t exist at all; perhaps all values are backgrounded by basic fear of disorder. The result, if it were to fall apart, is confusion, disorientation and, as happens to Muharrem, a total collapse. His superiors’ statements don’t always add up with what he had previously believed, but he is accustomed to obeying. And his convictions, not actually his own, quickly dissolve when the Sheikh tells him something different.  Even a lifetime of holding onto them doesn’t make them any sturdier than if they were a pile of sand in the hands.

The drab, perpetually overcast – but also high-contrast – color scheme reflects the protagonist’s filtering of his own worldview, the limited palette of emotions and experiences that had, until late, kept him safe. Rather than music, composer Gökçe Akçelik favors oppressive fields of sound, such as pummeling, cavernous layers of granular percussion or dense, metallic whirring. The vertiginous sound design swells and escalates as Muharrem’s protective beliefs slip out of his grip, as he draws nearer, as in a vacuum, to God’s judgment.

Biblical stories are full of characters who maintain their superhuman piety in spite of horrible conditions. The film, of course, isn’t merely commenting on the absurdity of such parochial bores, although those who purport to believe as fervently as they did abound – and get rich and powerful while they’re at it. But it isn’t their devotion that make them rich and powerful, it’s their propensity and desire to make others submit. On paper Muharrem is the most devout on the block, but it’s gotten him nothing. Perhaps it’s because what manifests itself on the outside as discipline is in fact fear, and what appears to be diehard devotion is in fact a wish to die, to be hoisted up and away from the scary Earth.

Even with its lack of subtlety, the film still manages to question these things while neither making the Sufi order into hypocritical monsters nor forcing Muharrem to completely cave in. (If anything, the stubborn hold of his faith causes him to shun reality to an even greater extreme). The filmmakers don’t, and wouldn’t, portray members of a minority sect such as the Sufi as corrupt because they have been historically repressed by the Turkish nation and, in spite of a resurgence in the last half century, continue to be marginalized under the AKP’s disingenuous secularism, which poorly disguises a muscular Sunnism. Furthermore, depicting any imam, even a fictitious one, as corrupt, would be called un-Islamic and subject to censure.

Still from 'Takva'The film functions as a critique of the weaknesses of any drastically narrowed worldview. Those that flourish in this world do so because they pass unchallenged, untested by the realities outside of them. The problems with a society that stubbornly moves conservative, monoethnic, monolingual, misogynist and normative don’t always make themselves apparent to those governing or otherwise benefiting from it because those people aren’t faced with differences of opinion or lifestyle. If their hegemony isn’t challenged, their stunted ideas won’t go anywhere, or, even worse, are given room to expand grossly, inflated by the dying breaths of lowly followers like our protagonist here. An exception that suggests the rule, Muharrem represents a very rare instance of someone actually getting disillusioned from the beliefs that gave his life, if not meaning, then purpose. Like a diver stepping out onto the ocean floor, he physically crumples under the new pressure. The filmmakers suggest that his faith remains in him even after such a crisis, uncrushable and parasitic, never allowing him to adapt properly to the ways of reality.

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