Hamam is an engaging film, telling a solid story and developing interesting characters. This is a film that, as my viewing companion offered in praise, doesn’t announce its themes with fanfare, but, rather, leaves it to the viewer to take the material on the screen and find within it the insights of the writers and director.
The story has its fair share of complications. Francesco, a young Italian architect, living with his architect wife in Rome in a troubled relationship, travels to Istanbul to deal with an inheritance from his recently deceased aunt. The property involved turns out to be a rundown steam bath, now closed. Initially planning to sell the hamam quickly and return to Rome, Francesco is seduced by the warmth of the Turkish family who are caretakers of the hamam and cared for his dying aunt as well. He decides to stay and restore the hamam.
A main theme, of course, is how a contrast in cultures can act as a catalyst for personal understanding and change. Francesco finds a collection of letters addressed by his aunt to his mother, letters which explain that living in Istanbul allowed her to flower in her own terms and have a fulfilled life. As events unfold, history starts to repeat itself with Francesco and then…
But there is no need to be a spoiler here, for this is a tale with a strong plot and part of the satisfaction is following its twists and turns as they unfold, often in unexpected ways.
The milieu in Istanbul is deliciously exotic. We are not given a whole lot in the way of touristic sightseeing, but we are given glimpses of native life in a residential quarter, of a good deal of food and drink, of family dynamics, and even a rather painful to watch ritual circumcision. The color is rich, saturated, the lighting often dark. Powerful rhythms of Turkish music alternate between the propelling and the sensual.
Indeed, sensual is a word that well describes Hamam, from the classically handsome lead player, Alessandro Gassman, to his equally classically regal Italian wife, Francesca d’Aloja, and virtually every member of the Turkish family – beauties all. The heat of the steamy bathhouse, the strong currents, cross currents, and counter currents of sexuality, the images of food, and the music together create a captivating mood that meshes the sensuality with feelings both of yearning and of nostalgia. We experience the growth and change of the lead characters, and the toll that fate takes, too, as they follow their kismet.