Turkey’s gift to Italian cinema, Ferzan Ozpetek, the subject of a MOMA mid-career survey, left home as a teenager to study film history in Rome and entered the industry in 1982 as an assistant to Massimo Troisi (Il Postino). He went on to work with Lamberto Bava and Ricky Tognazzi, then, in 1997, made the leap to directing his own features with Steam: The Turkish Bath, which turned out to be both a critical and commercial success. His oeuvre has been marked by a masterful handling of actors, often in densely populated ensemble stories involving characters from different backgrounds and sexual preferences. Clearly a movie nut, he has been instrumental in bringing former stars of the golden age of Italian cinema back to the big screen in significant roles.
An engaging exploration of cultural and sexual barriers, Steam concerns a young Roman designer (Alessandro Gassman) who travels to Istanbul to sell a Turkish bath he has inherited, but falls in love with the place, the family that runs it, and the intoxicating neighborhood. Harem (1999), Ozpetek’s opulent sophomore film, is a complex narrative involving parallel stories that recount the fall of the Ottoman Empire, as seen through the eyes of the women of the Sultan’s harem. One is narrated by a servant played by Serra Yilmaz—this irresistible actress who specializes in disarmingly outspoken characters would become the helmer’s mascot, appearing in nearly all of his later pictures. The other version is told years later by the aged concubine Safiye (Lucia Bosé) to a younger woman. A fine actress, but never a superstar, the stunning Bosé was the Louise Brooks of postwar European cinema, memorable in films of Antonioni and Buñuel. Her still-exquisite face lends incandescence to Harem.
His Secret Life (2001), Ozpetek’s first film made fully in Italy, is a beautifully acted melodrama in which an upper-class doctor (splendid Margherita Buy) discovers that her husband had a male lover (Stefano Accorsi). Her well-ordered existence gets a further jolt as she gets acquainted with a group of her husband’s inner-city friends—a chaotic community of queers, ethnic minorities, and refugees, who take care of each other. Buy and Accorsi have real chemistry, while Yilmaz as a wise-cracking lesbian friend almost steals the show.
Facing Windows (2003), Ozpetek’s most affecting and complex work to date, links a pair of illicit romances—one gay, one straight; one set in the present, the other dating from World War II and kept alive in a faltering memory. It’s particularly notable for the work of Massimo Girotti (the best-looking leading man of his generation, who starred in films of Visconti, Pasolini, and Antonioni) as an elderly survivor of the Nazi death camps. Girotti never got to see his superb last performance—he died before the picture was released.
Ozpetek’s latest, A Perfect Day (2008), marks the first time the director has brought to the screen a story not written by him (and Gianni Romoli, his frequent collaborator), but one based on a pre-existing text (a bestselling novel by Melania Mazzucco). The main plot is a grim tale of domestic violence, an impeccably acted, intelligent drama (with a mesmerizing stint by Valerio Mastandrea as a nutcase, wife-stalking cop). But the pic gets stalled by a clump of badly integrated secondary characters and is burdened with an overemphatic musical score. The delicious Yilmaz turns up in a brief cameo near the end. Now, if only Ozpetek would cook up a starring vehicle for this treasure.