The the award-winning Turkish import "Yol," which opens today at the Dupont Circle, is a mordant national epic about the grim odysseys of several felons granted temporary parole.
"Yol" was conceived by Yilmaz Guney, evidently the preeminent Turkish filmmaker (the press kit prepared by the importer, Triumph Films, likens his prolific output to Griffith, Eisenstein, Chaplin, De Sica, Ray, Kurosawa, Wajda, Godard, Leone, Pasolini and Clint Eastwood). However, it was directed by a proxy, Serif Goren, since Guney was imprisoned in the early '70s (The press kit alludes to an unexplained murder rap while the movie identifies Guney as a political prisoner). Guney appears to have spent most of the decade busily inventing and supervising movie projects from a curiously indulgent confinement, which ended about a year ago when he flew the coop and went into exile, popping up occasionally for things such as the Cannes Festival, where "Yol" shared the grand prize.
At any rate, Guney seems to have had a fascinating, embattled career in his native country before skipping. Whether it was also an artistic career of international significance is anybody's guess on the basis of "Yol," at once ambitious and inconclusive. Despite the Cannes endorsement, surely more of a gesture of ideological and political solidarity with a fugitive filmmaker than anything else, "Yol" is a sprawling and diffuse piece of storytelling almost certain to leave outsiders feeling as if they still don't know much about Turkey.
The "Yol" plot synopsis speaks of interweaving the stories of five parolees. But I can account for only four. And two of those remained mere shadow figures until moments before the fadeout when certain basic family relationships and traditional obligations were clarified for the first time. Far from building in momentum and reinforcing one another, the separate narratives tend to leave the impressions that (1) the characters haven't budged since you last saw them or (2) great chunks of exposition and development have been mislaid between the updates.
Allowing for the always slippery dramatic footing, which includes a scarcity of information about the circumstances that landed the men in prison in the first place, one may fairly say that the individual odysseys, all disillusioning homecomings , have their compelling aspects and that they possess epic potential.
In the most extensively documented story a prisoner returns to his native village to struggle with an appalling, archaic code of justice which demands that he execute his wife, who prostituted herself during his absence. In the other more or less detailed narrative a prisoner tries to retrieve his family and escape wrathful in-laws but ends up victimized, in circumstances that suggest that the Turks are kind of fanatic about affronts to public decency that would appear downright trivial and comical to most Americans.
The Turkish market is considered so marginal by Hollywood that the slanders heaped on Turkey in the course of "Midnight Express" never struck anyone at Columbia as a commercial liability. Triumph, a Columbia subsidiary, has now picked up an authentic Turkish feature likely to reinforce the impression that Turkey, while scenic and colorful in certain respects, is the last place on Earth a self-respecting American would want to visit.
Still, how can one presume to take a confident, self-congratulatory cultural position on the basis of "Yol"? I'm persuaded Turkey wouldn't feel like home, but then I never expected it would and don't care to scold it for falling short of nonexistent expectations.