Today’s Around the World with Netflix outing is a novel experience — for me, anyway. It’s a Turkish tearjerker.
Sentimental and often uncertainly so, “My Father’s Violin (Babamin Kemani)” touches on issues of abuse and poverty, family schisms and family obligations and the struggle of the street musicians of Istanbul to make an honest lira while hassled by the cops.
This is all set against a backdrop of classical music and affluence in a film that presents Istanbul in its best possible light — glossy, cultured, cosmopolitan and historic. It’s all a tad heavy-handed; the sentiment, one character’s resistance to it and the kid-friendly, chamber of commerce-approved image burnishing.
But as with many Around the World with Neflix offerings, give us 100 minutes and we’ll give you a taste of Turkey.
A widowed father (Selim Erdogan) and his irrepressible eight-year-old daughter Özlem (Gülizar Nisa Uray) kick around the city’s scenic squares and parks, playing folk music on fiddle, Bağlama (lute), clarinet and darbuka (drum). Father Ali Riza plays with three old friends, Özlem sings and dances and delivers the sassy patter as she passes the hat.
Their impromptu concerts often end in footchases. Apparerently, this sort of entertainment is banned in Turkey.
After the shows, Ali instructs the kid on their shared instrument — the violin — and passes on life lessons.
“Every person has their own melody,” he teaches (in Turkish with subtitles, or dubbed into the language of your choice), “if you just take the time to listen to it.”
This life of genteel poverty — the kid doesn’t go to school, the guys basically live together communally — isn’t long for this world. You don’t have to have seen “La Boheme” to know a tubercular cough when you hear Ali Riza wheeze into a handkerchief.
Ali Riza’s only hope is to approach this famous violinist, Mehmet Mahi (Engin Altan Düzyatan) in town for a series of shows. Those fantastical stories Ali’s been telling the kid about the scars all over his body, and how her “uncle” rescued him from this or that? That uncle really exists, even though he left Turkey decades ago and became a veritable André Rieu in Italy, a fiddler leading a showy string orchestra.
But there’s bad blood between the brothers. We can sense it when Ali notes that “we both became musicians.” “Violin VIRTUOUSO” Mehmet corrects him. Yes, he’s haughty, has no interest in this long-lost sibling and even less interest in taking on the guy’s little girl, seeing as how Ali’s dying.
“I’m busy” seems unnaturally cold, as does Mehmet himself. Reviews of his concerts often make notice of his ego, “hogging the spotlight.” His former-pianist Italian wife (Belçim Bilgin) puts up with that diva behavior. But she’s taken aback by his refusal to care for his dying brother’s child.
And when that sad day comes and a social worker takes Özlem, only the promise that “We’ll take her” from the surviving members of Ali’s quartet — unrelated, and thus unable to adopt her themselves — convinces Mehmet to do the very minimum. He signs for her, planning to hand her over to the guys, only to discover his legal obligation will include social worker visits, and that there’s no getting out of this easily.
It’s up to cherubic, excitable Özlem to win his wife Suna over, and eventually Mehmet himself, forcing him to hear her “melody” as she tunes him into his own.
The generic no-gift-for-parenting scenes aren’t played for laughs, and don’t do much in the way of giving the picture heart, either. Writer-director Andaç Haznedaroglu may be taking her shot at making the Turkish “Annie,” with this redhead belting out Turkish folk tunes and dancing. But Maestro Warbucks never stops leaving her and us cold.
The music of Bach, Mozart et al, in concert or simply on the soundtrack, makes “Violin” play as more highbrow than it is. It’s a simple orphan-wins-over-grinch tale, and Haznedaroglu and Düzyatan cannot make it pay off.
“My Father’s Violin” is downbeat, grumpy and sad when a heaping helping of cutesy was called for.
Still, the music is glorious. And the glimpses of Turkish life — crossing bridges along the Bosporus lined with fishermen trying their luck, squares filled with locals and tourists eager to hear live traditional music, lush concert halls and the posh house where the visiting virtuoso and his wife stay — are illuminating, if anything resembling an edge is mostly polished away.
The kid is adorable, busking for bucks, sleeping with her “father’s violin,” wrestling a beggar lady who steals her tips. That’s actually the edgiest thing in the movie, and unfortunately so. The hustler-beggar’s attire and the way she sports a plastic baby doll as begging prop suggests she is a Roma (called Romanlar in Turkey) stereotype.
It all adds up to a formulaic picture that has the gloss of Western cinema — which also tends to sugar coat reality — but not the polish or obligation to show us grit or even much that passes for sensitive.
Cast: Engin Altan Düzyatan, Belçim Bilgin, Gülizar Nisa Uray and Selim Erdogan
Credits: Scripted and directed by Andaç Haznedaroglu. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:52