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Strand Releasing presents
"Allah sent three apples from on high. One for the teller, one for the listener, and the last for the heroes of our tale."
DVD ReviewThe Arab world has always been a culture that greatly values the telling of tales; witness the timeless narratives of Sheherezade in the Arabian Nights. Noted director Ferzan Ozpetek takes this very Eastern concept to provide a look at the fall of the Ottoman Empire as seen through the eyes of the women of the harem of the Sultan, with a highly complex and fragmented narrative style that suggests that the telling of such tales is no straightforward task.
The central focus is Safiye (Marie Gillain), an Italian girl who had been sold into slavery by her parents at age eight. Purchased in Cairo by the Sultan (Haluk Bilginer), she is one of a large crowd of women kept in relative comfort to serve his whims. Among others, to suit the Sultan's tastes, Saphiye translates Verdi operas for him, while giving them happy endings. Unsatisfied with this status, however, Saphiye conspires with the eunuch Nadir (Alex Descas) to bring herself to the fore and make herself the favorite of the Sultan and to bear him a child. Things become complicated first when she falls in love with Nadir, and then when the Sultan is first forced to accept a constitution and then to flee for Europe, leaving the harem behind.
The tale is not presented in such straightforward fashion, however, but cryptically through stories within stories within stories. The tale is ostensibly narrated by the aged Saphiye (Lucia Bosé) years later to young Anita (Valeria Golino, perhaps best known to American audiences as the romantic lead in Hot Shots!). Yet like a Mobius strip, the tale of old Safiye is being told by Gulfidan (Serra Yilmaz) to the harem, in a temporal impossibility. Furthermore, at times the various narrators are inherently unreliable, as they tell a story in voice-over that is quite different from the story that is actually shown on the screen, making the film a bit of an Oriental puzzle.
Although the pacing is quite slow, the languid character feels appropriate to the situation. The sets and costumes are all sumptuously recreated, and the photography is often dazzlingly beautiful. The performances are quite good throughout, most notably Gillain and Descas, who communicate much with a look or a slight gesture. Frequently the most important communications on the screen here are completely wordless, which is somewhat at odds with the theme of tale-telling. However, the sense of parting and loss that fills the second half of the picture is palpable, and really does not require words to convey the bonds that are being torn asunder.
Although there is copious nudity, it is only on occasion erotic, most notably in a brief scene between Safiye and Nadir the eunuch. The print provided here is substantially cut; at 105 minutes it is shorter than the 107-minute Italian cut, the 110-minute version seen in France and the 125-minute cut from Turkey. Those who are fans of Ozpetek's work may recall references to Anita as the great-aunt of one of the characters in his first film, Steam, an apparent attempt to make his films a giant seamless tapestry of a tale.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic widescreen picture generally looks very nice, when the camera is static. Colors are extremely rich, black levels are good and shadow detail is excellent. When things are motionless on screen there is very good clarity and sharpness of detail. Unfortunately, during the frequent pans there is a highly distracting amount of shimmer and general video noise that drops the grade considerably. As befits a recent film, there is no significant damage to the source print.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: The original French audio has a solid substance, with excellent clarity and depth. The music comes through quite well, and during a storm sequence the surrounds and deep bass really come alive. There is excellent atmosphere that immerses the viewer quite well.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Steam, His Secret Life, The Cockettes, Burnt Money
Extras Review: The sole extras provided are trailers. There is a nonanamorphic letterbox trailer for the main feature, and also trailers for two other pictures by Ozpetek. Two miscellaneous Strand releases are also featured, with the full-frame trailer to The Cockettes and a nonanamorphic letterbox trailer for Burnt Money provided. But that's it. The English subtitles are burned in, which will please few fans of foreign film.
Extras Grade: D+
Final CommentsA stylish and complex exercise in storytelling, beautifully shot and with some good performances. Unfortunately, although the audio is excellent there are some issues with compression and video noise, and little in the way of useful extras.
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