Born from an initiative of the Turkish and Azerbaijan ministries of culture to cause the blossoming of a cultural collaboration between the two countries, the new historical drama “Mahmut and Meryem” is one of those films that could have been great and seductive if it were a bit shorter and it took itself less seriously.
The story is adapted from famous Azerbaijani writer Elchin Afandiyev's fantastical historical novel of the same name, a book I have not read but from the looks of it, it offers a literary pleasure on par with “The Game of Thrones” series. In the director's chair sits Mehmet Ada Öztekin, a filmmaker behind several successful Turkish TV series and also the writer of the 2011 film “Kaybedenler Kulübü” (Losers Club).
Set in the Caucasus of the 14th century, the story starts off with the sorrow of the khan of the district, Gence, who has been trying to conceive a child with his dear wife for the past seven years. All the khan wants is to have a son to bequeath his throne to. His wife decides to take charge and consults the town shaman lady Kısır Karı (which can be translated as “Barren Woman”). The shaman takes the first lady into the woods, performs some black magic with the help of a wolf and a guru type recluse. In exactly nine months, nine weeks and nine days a healthy son is born into the kingdom! This is Mahmut (Aras Bulut İynemli). The only problem with Mahmut is that against his father's wishes over the years he is transformed into a bookish, artistic type with long, curly hair who is against war and sword fighting. The khan also has a stepson named Bayındır, who is the brutish type in love with his sword and has his eyes on the throne. As you can imagine, Bayındır and Mahmut don't really get along.
In these tumultuous times, a war is about to break out between the Ottoman Empire and the Persians, so the khan has to take a side. Mahmut doesn't really care about the war and believes his father should not take any side. Meanwhile, Bayındır is planning all sorts of Byzantine games as he is trying to include the kingdom in the war. But forget about all the power plays and intrigues within the palace because our dear Mahmut lays eyes on an innocent Christian girl named Meryem (Eva Dedova), and in basically 30 seconds they fall in love. This is a love like no other, we are told by the narrator (even though the chemistry between the two actors reminds that of an icebox), their destiny is supposed to be like that of Leyla and Mecnun.
Meryem's monk father is against this romance, so he forces the young woman to accompany him on his pilgrimage to a very important church in the Christian world. Mahmut's family is also against the union, but nevertheless Mahmut decides to go on a journey of his own to find the girl. The young man doesn't really know how to fend for himself so his father appoints Sofu, one of his advisors, to accompany him. Off they go into the wilderness, encountering many challenges along the way. The real question is of course whether this epic love story comes with a happy ending. Will these two lovers reunite in the midst of war and the evil characters who try to stop them? By the end of the two long hours, it's sad to say that we really do not care.
The major problem with “Mahmut and Meryem” is that despite its astounding cinematography and art direction, its tempo and editing are too languorous and inconsistent to seduce the audience. While we really try to get involved in the arc of each character, who has an interesting and layered story of their own, we are never really allowed to get to know them because they remain placid archetypes as opposed to individuals of complexity. In such fantastical tales, despite the notion of good versus evil, there is always evil and good within all characters and room for a personal psychological metamorphosis that draws the spectator in. Mahmut remains a spoilt child who can quote some fine poetry, and Meryem remains a damsel in distress without a will of her own -- sadly there is no profound transformation in these lead characters that makes the whole film worth watching. What a shame since it is obvious that director Öztekin tries really hard to establish a genuine atmosphere and epic feeling throughout the film, but the film just doesn't flow.
“Mahmut and Meryem,” sadly, is a forgettable cinematic experience despite all the hard work and finances put into it.