Of Brothers Familiar and Brothers Grim

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The New York Sun

When a movie is called “Fratricide,” it’s an easy bet that there’s no happy ending. Even the beginning of Turkish director Yilmaz Arslan’s immigrant drama, which begins a two-week run tonight at Film Forum, is heavy with foreboding. “Death is the only faithful companion on this earth,”muses Ibo, an 11-year-old Kurdish orphan, as his grandfather slashes the jugular of a goat and anoints his forehead with fresh blood. The haunted plucking of a three-stringed tambor fills the soundtrack, casting a fateful spell. More blood will be spilled.

Soon, the boy finds himself in a nameless German city, bunked up in a halfway house full of fellow “exiles.” They’ve been dispatched by their families to work crummy jobs in the service sector and send their savings home. Despite the promise of a new life and the watchful eyes of more seasoned immigrants, there is an overwhelming sense of loneliness and alienation. Ibo is taken in as a brother by the older Azad (Erdal Celik), a fellow new arrival who labors as a barber in the grim bathroom of a Kurdish diner. Stoic and wary of the urban landscape he’s been thrust into, Azad wants to avoid the criminal exploits of his older brother, a low-grade pimp who has drifted with the undertow into the margins of the streets.

But trouble is everywhere, and the ethnic conflicts faced by the Kurds in southern Turkey arise as easily in the industrialized West. Both boys quickly find themselves menaced by a pair of thuggish, second-generation Turks — equivalents of the motiveless and malignant gang-bangers of Hollywood hiphop dramas, complete with snarling pit bulls and handguns flipped sideways. In a sequence of events that appears inevitable, not to mention disgustingly graphic on a level rarely seen outside of a zombie movie (or “The Sopranos”), a killing occurs, which in turn triggers more bloodshed. As the story escalates into tragedy, it becomes difficult to imagine how events could unfold in any other way.

Through its careful accumulation of details and the rough truths of its handheld camera movements, “Fratricide” creates a poetic dimension to balance and illuminate its dire narrative. Mr. Arslan, whose previous films “Yara” (1998) and “Langer Gang” (1992), have been popular on the international festival circuit, has lived in Germany for 30 years, and has a natural feel for the exile’s experience. If his film exploits the dynamics of an urban crime drama with cruel, inhumane villains and foolish, melancholy innocents, it does so to propel the plot and pull viewers into a deeper emotional relationship with the central characters.

That many of the actors are amateurs lends a tricky authenticity to their performances. Xewat Gectan, as Ibo, is heartbreaking in a way that American child actors never manage to be, navigating the harsh, documentary-style realism of the film’s look and tone with a dreamy quality that makes the drastic plot turns more effective. Mr. Celik’s Azad keeps his dreams tethered, masking them with a sullen caginess that is far more than an adolescent device, and which can melt with unexpected and radiant tenderness.

Elements of the film are simplistic: more black and white than subtly shaded. German society is portrayed as a spiritual dead zone, while flashbacks to the rocky Kurdish villages the boys called home shimmer with a hallowed aura. When a Turk is accidentally killed, the Kurdish community that shelters the suspects honors them as folk heroes. And it’s difficult not to sympathize. Still, Mr. Arslan finds folly on both sides. The film is critical when the Kurds turn a violent flesh-peddler into a martyr, for instance, and is dead-on in capturing the Kafka-esque absurdity of wandering souls caught up in a system whose language they literally do not understand.

“Fratricide” evokes an unending sadness that plays out almost as destiny. Rather than confront racial intolerance on the glib level of an American treatment such as “Crash,” it cuts straight into the heart, with crisp direction and a profoundly human eloquence.

The New York Sun

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