A Sydney lockdown on the heels of Melbourne: what price entertainment? It seemed natural as ever to have recourse to television and for once there was something a young friend, fresh from film school, said was a masterpiece. So, fearing the worst, we turned to Ethos, which came from that troubled complex society Turkey, courtesy of Netflix, and for the first three of the five episodes was stunning.
A psychiatrist, maybe late thirties, sophisticated, Western, no hijab and no hint of any Muslim frame of reference, listens cannily, calmly, to a young woman who is ‘covered’ (wears a headdress), calls her sister with a folksy deference, and says, ‘inshallah’ all the time, all nervous smiles and downturned glances, and then the camera cuts away to reveal the dialogue has shifted and the redhead psych is talking to her own psychiatrist and girlfriend, a woman of the same sophistication, the same alertness and ease and mockery and sophistication.
Then the plot gradually gets more complicated and intertwined. The hijabed patient – who has been fearfully inhibited about revealing any of her own privacy –turns out to be the cleaning lady of a man who is a sometime lover of swish psychiatrist number two. And then there’s her home life, living with a sister, a woman of dazzling beauty who is married to a rough, prejudiced husband, a bouncer in a night club who is devoted, as his sister-in-law is, to the teachings of a holy man, a hoja, a sage full of wisdoms profound and mundane. The sometime lover of psychiatrist number two also sometimes sleeps with a woman who is a TV soap star and who collides socially with the avatars of human suffering. Meanwhile the second psych turns out to have not only a sister who still wears the hijab but a brother who is mentally afflicted and who she treats with marijuana to disastrous effect.
The latter part of Ethos sees the sister-in-law character going back to the town of her childhood where she is pursued by her thick and heavy-handed husband and what has looked irresistible about Ethos dissipates.
But for the first few hours this Turkish miniseries has an extraordinary dramatic authority and it’s both a revelation and a reminder of what pure drama without any of the lure of thrillerdom and visceral plot twists can achieve. We find ourselves in a world where the sheer creative tension of human personalities in conflict sweeps us along like a lost art of human recollection and reflection.
The world of Ethos is at once exotic in the way it exhibits the extreme contrast of a sheltered, traditional world, and intimately familiar as people both swish and simple grope and rage for some inner truth or peace. It is a world dominated by women and the leading figures act with great beauty and warmth. Ethos presents a revelation of the world, a milieu of knife-edge intimacy and flashes of moody humour and variegation that bring to mind Ingmar Bergman at the first height of his powers. It really is that good.
But then something dissipates. The irresistibly ravishing sense of worlds within worlds, gradually laying itself bare with great tenderness and tension, dissipates and the world of Ethos becomes more of a muddle than a mystery. And the sense of people stumbling blindly within the horrors of a traditional culture they can neither get away from nor be sustained by takes over with an effect of clutter and tedium.
It’s a pity because the first three episodes show how television can sustain a fully filmic vision. Then, by way of contrast, we ventured back into a cinema for the first time in what felt like years. We saw Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge, that sublime uncanny heist film with Alain Delon as the crook with the code of a knight and Yves Montand as the bad cop alcoholic who with his DT’s sees creatures that might afflict a hermit in the desert. The film is riddled with an absolute clarity of articulation, perfectly paced throughout its 140 minutes. Melville uses the camera like a mirror of the soul and this gangster film takes on the unearthly quality of a gunfight about the meaning of life. This is a masterpiece in the most precise sense of the term.
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