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A 'Head-On' Collision With Love

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2005; Page WE39

HERE'S A DANDY little test: Did you ever love someone so much you smashed two empty glasses into bloody shards with your open palms? For Cahit (Birol Unel), a Turkish immigrant in Fatih Akin's "Head-On," the answer is a resounding evet, or yes.

Akin's film, set in the Turkish neighborhoods of Hamburg, is about a marriage of convenience between two violent souls: Cahit, a drunken widower with a ravaged face whose job consists of picking up detritus in a nightclub, and Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), an eccentric beauty prone to suicide attempts.

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When the besotted Cahit drives into a brick wall, he is dispatched to a psych ward. The reason: There were no skid marks. This is where he meets Sibel, another Turk who recently slashed her wrists but evidently botched the job. Her unhappiness comes from the ruthless atmosphere in her Old World home. Her brother broke her nose, she tells Cahit, just for holding hands with a man. She asks Cahit to marry her, so she can live in freedom. Cahit doesn't have to do anything but ask for her hand, show up for the ceremony and share a home.

Sibel drives a hard bargain. When Cahit declines, she breaks a bottle and cuts her wrists again. This time, Cahit agrees. And almost immediately, he finds himself cleanshaven and standing respectfully before Sibel's dour brother and father.

In a movie full of stormy melodrama and perpetual surprise, including a six-piece Turkish band that functions as a chorus to the story, it's almost a comfort that something sweet and predictable happens: the love between the newlyweds. But this affection comes only after a lot of emotional suffering, not to mention broken glass. It's a mark of this movie that Cahit's startling gesture with the two glasses feels almost normal.

In a way, the film is a kissing cousin to the 1960s kitchen sink dramas of the British cinema and the working-class angst of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. All three worlds are governed by underclass claustrophobia, whether socioeconomic, cultural or both. There's no way out, it seems. And the desperate can only scratch and claw at each other, at home, in bars or out on the street. Things rarely turn out well, but bitter lessons pierce through the hopelessness like flash lightning.

Director Akin, a Hamburg-born filmmaker of Turkish heritage, who has long delved into the fractious interface between his two cultures since his 1995 short feature "Sensin -- You're The One!," won the Golden Bear at last year's Berlin Film Festival for "Head-On." It has also taken a number of awards across Europe. It's easy to see why. There's a raw emotional urgency that never relents. And no matter what is going on in the story, these star-crossed lovers are always fascinating to watch. Unel has a face for the ages. He's a Turkish Mount Rushmore with a drinking problem. Kekilli, a former porn star, exudes odd-bird poignancy; she's both naif and graduate of the school of hard knocks. They're made for each other, and in this world, that romantic pairing amounts to a blessing.

HEAD-ON (Unrated, 118 minutes) -- Contains sexual scenes, nudity, obscenity and violence. In Turkish and German with subtitles. At the Avalon Theatre.

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