ISTANBUL: Like Wall Street hedge fund brokers, men who take up religious vocations – whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish -- tend to be depicted in terms that often verge on cliché.
For narrative and political reasons, it’s convenient for secular filmmakers to depict such characters as archconservatives -- old and gruff, unbending and unreasoning – especially if they’re close to the seat of power.
Yet priests and ulama have also been cast as warm-hearted, charitable types – usually when they’re on the political and cultural margins -- who help oppressed heroes in times of need. Clerics and imams have been depicted as scholars and social workers, but seldom both at once.
It’s likely that few film representations of professionally pious men quite live up to the profile of Selman Bulut.
This well-honed comic creation is the protagonist of Onur Unlü’s “Let’s Sin” (Itirazim Var), an unruly detective caper competing in the national competition of the Istanbul International Film Festival (IKSV), where it just enjoyed its world premiere.
Like all police procedurals, “Sin” has a crime at its core. The one that gets this investigative ball rolling is the brazen murder of a publically pious and influential worshiper while at prayer at the mosque in the Istanbul neighbourhood of Karakoy (once known as Galata).
Selman Bulut (Serkan Keskin), the Imam of the Karakoy mosque, notes that the police aren’t pursuing this case with the energy that he thinks appropriate. While being interrogated about the murder, Bulut learns that the victim, a man he’s known as a pillar of the community, is actually a loan shark with a long history of operating on the wrong side of the law.
The murder victim is only one character who is not what he seems.
Take the young man the imam employs as his muezzin. Bulut knows him as a morally upright figure who’s been looking after an elderly Armenian lady in the neighbourhood who’s taken ill. Yet the murderer escaped through a secret door in the mosque that only the muezzin and the imam know about, making the young man a prime suspect.
So it is that Bulut begins to investigate the case himself, and in the process finds that everyone he knows has been ensnared in the loan shark’s life and death, himself included.
The again, the imam isn’t what he seems either.
On one hand he’s a portrait of middle age. A man who’s been surviving on a modest public servant’s salary for decades, Bulut is a widower who lost his wife in a car accident that he himself barely survived, his daughter (Hazal Kaya) now a young adult.
Yet this man of liberal temperament also keeps a large library and performs in a neighbourhood bouzouki ensemble.
In his youth Bulut did his military service in rural Turkey, staying on there for some years to work as the chaplain of his army unit. While in the armed forces, he became an accomplished amateur boxer, and he demolished enough young men this way to hold some titles.
As the film unfolds, the audience sees the imam’s retained his talent for fisticuffs, one he’s willing to employ as needed with criminals and members of the police force alike.
This combination of elements comes together in one of the great comic set pieces of the film. Washing his face in the mosque’s courtyard fountain, the imam notices the barrel of an automatic handgun, surely the murder weapon, protruding from the fountain’s drain.
While he’s bent over, struggling to prise the weapon loose, three officials from the Religious Affairs Directorate visit to question him about the murder. He greets them while still bent over, gazing at them between his knees and below his posterior. When he finally yanks the weapon loose, he stashes it in his trousers and formally introduces himself.
The directorate chief points out that in addition to his religious training, Bulut also took a graduate degree in anthropology at university.
“Yes,” he admits, “I was looking for a rational reason why we ought to be monotheists.”
“How did you manage?” the official asks, curiosity overcoming his mild disapproval.
“About as well as Hegel,” the imam shrugs.
While briefing his colleagues on the murder case, the muezzin rushes through the mosque’s courtyard. The imam begins introducing the young man to the directorate officials when he notices a pair of Greek Orthodox priests in hot pursuit of his employee.
He’s then interrupted again by his daughter, who’s decided that this is the time to introduce her new flatmate (Oner Erkan).
Not only is he a man, he is, she explains, her husband, with whom she’s had a religious marriage – albeit without her father's permission.
Pretending to look though his files, the head directorate official notes these goings on with a look of growing concern.
The 40-year-old Unlü is no stranger to Turkish cinema. His 2013 feature “Thou Gild'st the Even,” an unconventional tale of love, malice and the paranormal told from the perspective of a schizophrenic off his meds, took the grand prize at last year’s IKSV. Though a much more conventional work – veering closer to populist lampoon than the past film's narrative experiments – the daring side of “Sin” doesn't seem such an aberration.
The moral of this offbeat police procedural is that, as in matters of criminality, there is more to issues of morality than the mere appearance of public piety. It is an ever-timely sentiment told with rare style here.
Comic takes on the conventions of detective fiction and film noir aren’t rare, but Unlü’s film may be the first to reimagine Hercule Poirot as a member of the ulama. The writer-director takes full advantages of the comic potential of Bulut’s character – accentuated by some superb comic dialogue, a chore Unlü shared with Sirri Sürreya Onder.
The plotting, however, is far from superb. As the film careers recklessly forward, more than a few plot strands are shaken loose by the impatient narrative velocity of the thing. By this point, though, you may have enjoyed Unlü’s irreverence enough to not care overmuch.
The Istanbul International Film Festival continues through 20 April. For more information, see http://film.iksv.org/en