Movie Review: 'Anatolian Leopard' is Pure Cinema at its Best
This brilliant film from Turkey is a must see for anyone who truly loves cinema.
Anatolian Leopard (2021)
Directed by Emre Kayis
Written by Emre Kayis
Starring Ugar Polat, Ipek Turktan, Tansu Bicer
Release Date November 4th, 2022
An incredibly sad man visits his daughter as she prepares to play as part of a symphony concert. He's arrived with a gift to give her and ever so briefly we can see happiness in his eyes. He's greeted warmly by his daughter but the camera captures the scene at a distance as the pleasantries of father and daughter aren't all that important. The brief pleasantries are interrupted by the arrival of a woman about the age of the sad man. Context indicates that this is the mother of said daughter.
Trailing immediately behind the mother who immediately has taken over the scene with excitement and photos and selfies, are another older man and a young boy. Again, just reading the context clues, the dialogue is entirely made up of pleasantries heard from a distance as the camera remains several feet away across a crowded room, we know that this is the mother's new husband and son. The age of the boy indicates that the sad man and the mother have not been together in a long time.
There is also a slight indication that the marriage ended badly as the two don't share even a minor pleasantry, she pushes past him and in his sadness, the sad man recedes into the background. It's not just the movement of the actors, it's the contrast in the costumes. The sad man is dressed sadly, bland dark colors, rumpled, and indistinct. The mother is dressed in a bright white expensive fur coat and the husband and son, though not dressed in bright colors, they are dressed in shades brighter than the sad man that help to notably set them apart.
The cherry on top of the scene is the mother handing her daughter a gift. She has purchased a home in London for her daughter who appears to be traveling there to further her career. The sad man decides not to give his far more modest gift, preferring to slink away and leave quietly after the daughter excuses herself to hurry to the stage. The aching sadness of the scenario, the staging, the costume, all of this remarkable detail in this scene from the much hailed Turkish film Anatolian Leopard is delivered in barely more than 2 minutes of screen time.
I adore this. I am celebrating the remarkable work of director Emre Kayis in this moment. Far too many films lack the skill to deliver this much astonishing yet simple detail without reams of expository dialogue. No one in this scene introduces themselves, we are asked to read the room and color in the details of the moment in our mind. That might seem simple since, as movie goers, we are trained to absorb mundane details, but when you watch as many movies as I do you come to appreciate moments like this where film technique tells the story rather than ham-handed screenwriting.
This quiet, seemingly unimportant moment provides the back story of our main character, that incredibly sad man we will come to know as Fikret, though everyone calls him The Director. He has a daughter though they aren't close. He's divorced, unhappily so, and his wife has moved on with great success. He's humble, sad, reserved and ashamed. This scene is the thesis statement on the motivation for the rest of the movie, for everything that will come after this scene. It's just over two minutes and a complete statement about the character and this movie is set in place.
Fikret is The Director of a state run Zoo in his home country of Turkey. The zoo is set to be torn down and replaced by a tacky theme park and The Director's career, the one thing that has defined the past 22 years of his life, is being taken from him. Rather than be bitter, The Director is resigned and simply awaits his fate like a condemned man. His every action is like a last tribute to who he was and a solemn goodbye the people he has met along the way.
The only thing standing in the way of Fikret's condemnation is the Anatolian Leopard, a rare and endangered species of big cat. The zoo cannot be closed and torn down until the Leopard is moved safely to another zoo. Until then, the status quo of the zoo remains in place. Fikret isn't actively keeping the Leopard from being moved but he isn't acting quickly to comply with his orders either. Then, something happens that changes the movie from a bleak character study to a dark comedy of manners and a mild murder mystery.
It's a shift so subtle and ingenious that you catch yourself being surprised by your own smiles and chuckles as the film progresses. All the while, Fikret only occasionally rises from his stupor. The brief and muted comedy and the murder mystery happen around him in the margins, even as he is the catalyst for it all through one big and surprising decision he makes. That decision briefly brings light to his life via his friendship with his assistant, Gamze (Ipek Turktan) who helps him unexpectedly.
The rest of Anatolian Leopard I will leave you to discover for yourself. I know mainstream American audiences don't see many foreign films but I do hope you will give this film a chance. It's small and thoughtful and incredibly well constructed and it deserves an audience. The performances are lovely and sad, the slow burn story and the quietly developed themes are exceptionally captured by a very skilled and caring director in Emre Kayis.
On top of being an elegant and thoughtful film, there is a meta-textual element that did not occur to me until I started writing about it and it delighted me in its grace and simplicity. Fikret is known for much of the film as 'The Director.' He's treated as an afterthought, he's a keen observer and yet completely hands off. Much of the action of the film happens in front of him and only once does he seem to force the action, it just happens to be the most important action of the film. It's clear that director Emre Kayis identifies his work as the director of this film with his main character, The Director. The idea is never smugly underlined and, like I said, it only occurred to me later.
That makes the ending of Anatolian Leopard so remarkably poignant. I have to go into spoilers for a moment to talk about this so leave now and see this movie. The final moment of Anatolian Leopard finds The Director alone in the cafeteria of his former zoo. He has his things in a box and he sit alone taking in a final look around. Suddenly the doors burst open and workers in hard hats come streaming in as the camera pulls back to reveal them. The zoo is closed, the theme park is moving in and the director is moving on.
If there is a more perfect, multilayered meta-text commentary on modern film, I haven't seen it. A zoo turning into a theme park, it's like the modern movie business going from a more primal, story driven culture, to the blockbuster era of manufactured thrills. An even more subtle reading of metaphor however is that of a Director ending his film and having to hand it over to a studio or a marketing team and having what he created taken from him and reshaped perhaps into something else, a product to be sold in a marketplace.
Can you tell how much I LOVE this movie.
Find my archive of more than 20 years and nearly 2000 movie reviews at SeanattheMovies.blogspot.com. Follow me on Twitter at PodcastSean. Follow the archive blog on Twitter at SeanattheMovies. Listen to me talk about movies on the Everyone's a Critic Movie Review Podcast on your favorite podcast listening app. If you've enjoyed what you have read consider subscribing to my writing her on Vocal. If you'd like to support my writing you can do so by making a monthly pledge or leaving a one time tip. Thanks!
About the Creator
Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for Everyone's a Critic Movie Review Podcast. I am a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.
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