For everybody who thought Biutiful was too frivolous and upbeat, another massive helping of international misery-porn arrives courtesy of Feo Aladag’s When We Leave. A well-intentioned slog attempting to shed light on the so-called honor killings of Muslim women—based on an actual case that took place in Berlin in 2005—the movie is suffocated by its own grim determinism.
A shame, as there are plenty of good intentions here, as well as a remarkable central performance from Sibel Kekilli, who made such an impression a few years back in Fatih Akin’s Head-On. Kekilli stars as Umay, a German-born Turk living in Istanbul, trying to protect her adorable 5-year-old son, Cem (Nizam Schiller), from her viciously abusive husband, Kemal (Ufuk Bayraktar.) In the opening moments, Umay is staring down a loaded pistol. We soon flash back to happier times, when her hubby bats her around the living room, then locks the kid in a closet and wordlessly mounts her. Things get more unpleasant from there on out.
Umay eventually flees, taking Cem with her and hiding out with her parents and siblings in Berlin. The welcome is not as warm as one might expect. Hidebound by traditional values, her family is embarrassed by Umay’s domestic situation, offering at first only inane platitudes. Her father offers a few choice words of wisdom: “He is your husband. The hand that strikes is also the hand that soothes.”
As time wears on, the presence of Umay and Cem becomes more than just an imposition. Such things are simply not done, even in this day and age, and her family’s name is quickly disgraced with their tight-knit community. Her sister’s fiance wants to call off their engagement, which is a bit of a logistical nightmare since she’s already knocked up. Umay’s father Kader (Settar Tanriogen) clearly loves his daughter, but remains baffled by the entire situation. Most private moments find him sitting helpless, staring into space wondering how things have come to this, particularly after he becomes an accessory to an attempted kidnapping.
Before long, Umay flees once again, bringing Cem to live with her in a women’s shelter and attempting to begin a new life in a restaurant. She even has a couple of dates with a sad-eyed chef (Florian Lukas.) But any hopes for her escape we might wish for have already been negated by the flash-forward gun barrel opening. (I do wonder sometimes why so many screenwriters choose to open their movies with a spoiler.)
Aladag’s tone is a good deal more measured than the white-hot outrage such sentiments might normally elicit. When We Leave takes its time and attempts to give every character a fair shake (well, besides Kemal, who’s pretty unredeemable.) It’s photographed in wide-screen, often with two characters in the frame and compositions stressing the vast physical space between them. There’s not a lot of agency here, as most of these folks appear to be caught up in circumstances beyond their control, and nobody seems particularly eager to get on with the inevitable.
When We Leave asserts that the problem is rooted in the culture itself, and a more interesting movie lurks in the glimpses we get of this family’s day to day lifestyle. We notice how much they have assimilated into German society, yet still take great pains to preserve some semblance of their old world. A gutsier movie might have explored how and why this population has chosen to embrace certain aspects of modernity while still holding matters of prehistoric misogyny so very dear.
Instead, Aladag succumbs to melodrama. Kekilli’s performance is marvelously internalized. She’s watchful, unwavering and often grimly resigned to events and attitudes most of us would rightly find appalling. There is one meltdown at a wedding that devolves into histrionics and doesn’t ring true to this character in the slightest, a harbinger of bad things to come.
Without getting into specifics, When We Leave has the worst last five minutes I’ve seen in any movie in years. Every last scrap of goodwill the movie had earned due to its noble purposes or Kekilli’s fine work is promptly flushed down the toilet with a rapid-fire barrage of manipulative cheats and a left-field sucker-punch so cheap that it’s like something out of Crash, only worse. It’s the kind of choice that makes you not just call to mind the filmmaker’s ethics, but also her sanity.
Director: Feo Aladag
Starring: Sibel Kekilli, Nizam Schiller and Derya Alabora
Running time: 119 minutes
2014 Films: The Year’s Most Likely