Compassion is almost as scarce as water in Emin Alper’s sardonic, seething Un Certain Regard breakout “Burning Days,” a parched little parable about small-town corruption in stiflingly patriarchal rural Turkey. The cool filmmaking begins and ends at the edge of a massive sinkhole on the outskirts of the village, featuring a manhunt reminiscent of a boar hunt and a miraculous lake whose waters may or may not be toxic. Here the cool filmmaking is more subtle than the metaphors. But then again, with mass arrests during Turkey’s recent Pride celebrations still making the headlines when it comes to homophobia, misogyny, male crises and the other associated atrocities of this strongman-led society, these are not subtle times.
Burning Days is a more genre-focused film than Alper’s Berlinale Competition title A Tale of Three Sisters (which also makes it more accessible than the overtly Czechoslovak theatrics of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey’s other Cannes darling). “Burning Days” benefits from Alper’s sparse, dry script and from DP Christos Karamanis’ casually devastating widescreen photography. In an emblematic sweeping shot, amidst the sinister hints of Stefan Will’s excellent score, we are introduced to Emre (Selahattin Paşali), the ambitious young prosecutor newly posted to this drought-stricken backwater as he heads into the crater on extinction- Level outside gazes at City, along with local judge Zeynep (Seli̇n Yeninci).
Whether the sinkhole was avoidable — and whether the groundwater drilling that may have caused it can continue — is one of the cases Emre’s office will investigate. This will likely put him at odds with the local bigwig, whose mayoral re-election campaign is based on promises to solve the municipal water crisis. With a forehead as smooth as the cuffs of his freshly pressed shirts, Emre stands out amid the crumpled codes of masculine behavior that rule this tinpot kingdom. When he voices his concerns about attending a dinner at the mayor’s house, Zeynep replies with a shrug and a mischievous, private smile. Such conflicts of interest are simply the way of things here.
Indeed, the mayor’s son, Sahin (Erol Babaoglu), and his grinning, obsequious sidekick Kemal (Erdem Şenocak) show up in Emre’s office almost immediately, ostensibly to greet him but actually to spy on him. Her tomboyish banter falls on deaf ears: Emre is dripping with urbane disdain for these local jerks with her locker-room babble of brothels and boar-hunting escapades. Despite the cryptic warning from Murat (Ekin Koç), the handsome editor of the opposition newspaper, Emre goes to that fateful dinner with the mayor. He wakes up the next day with a blackout raki hangover and hazy incomplete memories of the evening that culminated in the violent rape of Peknez (Eylul Ersoz), the slow-witted Roma girl who showed up late to intercede for the men dance.
From now on, what makes Burning Days such an unusually compelling crime thriller is the way it operates on parallel tracks, with Emre simultaneously bringing the rapist(s) to justice and all the emerging evidence of his own potential involvement in it wants to suppress crime. Paşali’s smolderingly ambivalent portrayal is key to making Emre’s turmoil so compelling as he evolves from a crusader, if stiffly intrusive, underdog of a genre western to a personally compromised antihero of a film noir. That all of this is set against the backdrop of his own little-recognized homosexuality in a city where even rumored same-sex attraction is enough to confer pariah status only adds layers of personal and professional confusion to the intoxicating brew.
Graphically, Alper decisively downplays the story’s queer themes, hinting at the developing attraction between Emre and Murat with little more than a few stealthy glances and an illicit drunken dance session. This shows a sly awareness of what’s about to happen on screens in the filmmaker’s home country, but leaves Burning Days a little tamer than necessary for international audiences prepared for more explicit art-house genre fusions. That Turkey’s patriarchal politics fosters an ingrained misogyny is an equally eloquent point, if made a little too lightly by the story’s marginalizing of its female characters. Peknez, the rape victim, hails from a marginalized community and is deliberately coded as mentally retarded, which explains how flippantly her personality is ignored by the village’s powerful men. But it also makes them a narratively convenient way for Alper to create suspense, since Emre has no recollection of the evening and Peknez is, at best, an unreliable witness to her own injury.
As a woman who’s risen to some prominence in this cruelly chauvinistic city, Zeynep may have the most interesting backstory here, but is also underdeveloped as a character. Such storytelling choices make Burning Days an oddly diplomatic artifact of the very aspects of contemporary Turkish culture it most blatantly critiques. Still, those omissions and evasions are small missed opportunities in an otherwise searingly intelligent, superbly made thriller where morality is blurred by heat haze but the real lines dividing society are sharply defined: Out here, you’re either corrupt or complicit , or collateral for those who are.
https://variety.com/2022/film/reviews/burning-days-review-a-sweltering-stylish-small-town-allegory-for-corruption-in-strongman-societies-1235302563/ ‘Burning Days’ Review: Hot, stylish Turkish corruption thriller