Steam: The Turkish Bath
By Steve Davis
APRIL 26, 1999:
D: Ferzan Ozpetek; with Alessandro Gassman, Fransesca d'Aloja, Carlo Cecchi, Halil Ergun, Serif Sezer. (Not Rated, 9 min.)
Steam is a little moist around the edges, often to the point of being soggy. This
Italian-Spanish-Turkish production about an uptight Italian businessman, Francesco,
who inherits a deteriorating hamam -- a Turkish steam bath -- in Istanbul is difficult
to characterize. Is this a film about a Westerner experiencing the mysterious allure
of an exotic culture, à la Paul Bowles? Is it a commentary on the elusiveness
of happiness and contentment in a life dominated by cell phones and business deals?
Is it a work about the importance of keeping tradition alive in these contemporary
times? Is it a film about how destiny sometimes guides us to a preordained place?
Or is it yet another movie about a man coming to terms with his sexuality? Steam
is all of these things, in some respects, but only elliptically so. Because none
of its themes are ever fully developed, you really don't know what to make of it.
Ozpetek's direction is elegant -- he knows how to compose shots beautifully -- but
it is dispassionate and static. While the movie's title suggests something sensuous
and feverish, Steam is anything but steamy. Contrary to expectations, only a couple
of the film's scenes take place in an operational bathhouse; much of the film occurs
in the hamam that Francesco is renovating, after rather impetuously deciding not
to sell the building to a local businesswoman. (His resolve to restore the bathhouse
to its former glory proves to be fateful, which only further confuses the film's
themes.) Steam achieves a degree of narrative tension only when Francesco's wife
arrives from Rome for a visit and finds her husband a changed man, in more ways than
one. (Gassman's performance as Francesco doesn't suggest much of a transformation;
it is wooden and one-dimensional.) By this point, however, the film has lulled you
into a vague complacency, so that the characters' revelations are neither surprising
nor enlightening. Given this permeating haze, it's difficult to see anything clearly
in this Steam.
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