Ferzan Ozpetek’s handsome first feature, Steam: The Turkish Bath, was an obvious contender for Foreign Film Oscar this year, but the Turkish authorities refused to submit the movie for consideration, reportedly because of its gay content. The irony is that, whatever you make of its distinct yet muted homoeroticism, Steam is a tourist board’s wet dream, albeit one taken to a swooningly romanticized, mildly creepy extreme. Ozpetek’s Istanbul is a sensuous, near-mystical realm that exerts a vicelike grip on unsuspecting visitors: a taste of Turkish hospitality, a frolic in a bathhouse, and, evidently, you’re hooked for life.
There’s a slightly patronizing old-school flavor to the movie’s premise—buttoned-down Westerner visits exotic land, undergoes momentous sexual and spiritual awakening—but Steam lulls you into believing it. Francesco (Alessandro Gassman, son of director Vittorio), a stoic, urbane Italian designer, travels to the Turkish capital with the intention of selling the property he has inherited from his late aunt (his mother’s estranged sister, who fled to Istanbul in her youth and was so entranced she never returned). At first every bit the stereotypically aloof foreigner (his cell phone keeps ringing at inopportune moments), Francesco rethinks his course of action when he learns he has in fact inherited a bathhouse—traditionally a sanctuary where men indulge “certain caprices.” He also starts to respond to the lavish hospitality of his hosts (employees of his aunt’s), not least the family’s attractive young son (Mehmet Gunsur). Francesco’s experiences are paralleled with his aunt’s (her letters to his mother, never sent, serve as voiceover), and his transformation is so conclusive by the time his wife, Marta, shows up (to serve divorce papers), she cannot help but find herself curiously drawn to the new Francesco.
Beautifully photographed (by Pasquale Mari), Steam is a languid, melancholic, gently intoxicating experience, though Ozpetek jump-starts the film every now and again with strategic use of a propulsive, percussive score. Gassman smolders effectively throughout, but more than that, he also conveys Francesco’s gradual awakening credibly and with admirable economy. There isn’t all that much beneath Steam‘s seductively placid surface, but its potentially trite bottom line—that the pursuit of happiness is no less than an imperative—is so heartfelt and so lucidly rendered that, by the end of the film, it has acquired a wholly unexpected poignancy.