Cinema Libre // 2009 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // April 19th, 2010
Sucks to be almost an orphan.
Why do foreign films about kids always manage to be total downers? I can't immediately recall a foreign movie about a precocious tyke having an adventure at soccer camp. Rather, the ones that easily come to mind usually concern kids living in poverty, orphaned or neglected by parents, put to work in decrepit conditions or otherwise given a bum deal. The Turkish film Mommo the Bogeyman is accomplished technically but the story is predictable. On the DVD cover art, Variety's Jay Weissberg calls it "a heart-wrenching tale." On the back cover, Jay is again cited describing the movie as "a heart-warming tale." I'm willing to split the difference and call it "heart-wreming."
Ahmet and his younger sister Ayse, played respectively by real-life cousins Mehmet Bulbul and Elif Bulbul, aren't exactly orphans. However, they're left in the care of their crippled grandfather, Hasan (Mete Donmezer), after their mother dies. Their father, Kazim (Mustafa Uzunyilmaz), has remarried and moved in with his wife's family elsewhere in the village. Hasan can barely get around the house let alone take care of two young children. But he loves the kids and rejects the suggestion of sending Ayse to work as a servant for a rich family. Hope stems from the kids' aunt in Germany who wants to send for them but the paperwork is taking longer than expected. In the meantime, Ahmet and Ayse only have each other while they contend with bullies, uncaring adults and the cruel taunts of other village kids.
The young protagonists of Mommo are played by nonprofessional actors and while this gives the movie some authenticity -- and the kids look and act like real kids -- it leaves us at an emotional distance from their characters. The Bulbul cousins are cute kids but too often it feels like we're watching them merely recite lines. Of course, the script doesn't really require Ahmet and Ayse to be anything more than familiar big brother-little sister types. They have a natural fondness for each other that is evident as they enjoy their summer surroundings. Still, director Atalay Tasdiken should have coaxed more from the young performers. In the scene where Ayse gets hurt while playing in a creek, it took a moment before I understood why the girl was crying. There is a moment later in the movie when Ahmet and another girl in the village exchange nervous, meaningful looks. Yet, we're left to infer the meaning of those looks largely based on the expectation suggested by the cinematography and editing when it should come naturally from their body language.
The best performance comes from Mete Donmezer as the grandfather, a stoic and proud figure despite his frailty. It's clear that under his gruff exterior is a decent and caring man. It's too bad that the director misses the opportunity to make more of Hasan's scenes with the children. We want to see this good man comfort the kids and impart his knowledge but those moments never come. Still, the limited tenderness the old guy does display is entirely believable. In contrast, Kazim, the father, is just overdone as a villain. The script tries too hard to make him appear spineless, irrational and uncaring. It doesn't help that the father appears older and frailer than the grandfather.
The film was shot entirely on location in the village of Çavus in the province of Konya, central Anatolia. There's nothing remarkable about the village but the cinematography does show off its simple rural features to beautiful effect. If it weren't for a few glaring technical issues, the picture quality on this DVD would be exceptional. The colors are quite bold with lush greens breaking up the dusty landscape. Daytime scenes are brightly lit in golden sunlight. The sharpness and detailing in the image is very good. Unfortunately, there are a few instances of technical glitches that really stand out. It looks as though there was a problem with the video compression in scenes with dense foliage. When the kids are playing in a creek in the forest, for example, the background looks somewhat blocky and low-res. There are also shots where the background in one part of the frame appears as a flickering series of stills while the actors move in real time in another part of frame. These problems were most noticeable in the first ten minutes of the movie. Either I grew used to them as I watched or the problems were isolated to those early scenes. It's also possible that this is only a symptom of the check disc we received for reviewing purposes. The simple audio mix works fine for the movie but there were a handful of times when the audio dropped out for a second. I found the permanent English subtitles just minimally readable and on smaller monitors they will be difficult to make out.
Mommo is a simple and predictable tale that will inspire parents to give their children a big hug. It may cause some despair to know the story was inspired by real events. The movie is effective at making us feel sad for its protagonists but it keeps us at an emotional distance from the characters. We observe their situation but because the script denies the young siblings any agency in their plight, ultimately there isn't a payoff for enduring the frustration. The movie is almost worth recommending for the intimate glimpse of a small Turkish village even though we're left with the impression that it sucks to live there.
The kids are innocent and the filmmaking is accomplished so we're staying the charges.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinema Libre
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Turkish)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated