Saturday, March 07, 2009

"This Light Breeze that Loves Me"

Theological Reflections on

Ferzan Ozpetek’s film
Hamam: The Turkish Bath
(released as Steam: The Turkish Bath in the U.S.)

by Michael J. Bayly

One of [this] film’s under-appreciated virtues is its ability to evoke the immanence of places and things with exquisite poignancy. The misty light over the Bosphorus, the texture of a damp wall, the pathos of a dead woman's dusty relics all provide this seductive fable of the exhilaration of change and the ineluctability of fate, with the jolt of a vaguely recalled epiphany.

– Peter Keough
The Boston Phoenix
March 29, 1999


In this post (which is actually an edited version of a paper I wrote in 2002 when studying at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities) I identify and explore Ferzan Ozpetek’s 1997 film Hamam: The Turkish Bath as a “contemporary cultural text” (1) – one, which like any such text, has the potential to contain a theological dimension. As Jungian author Thomas Moore reminds us, whenever imagination achieves unusual depth and fullness, we glimpse the sacred. Thus any source of imagination that approaches this richness and depth helps create a religious sensibility. “When they expose the deep images and themes that course through human life,” says Moore, “so called secular literature and art serve the religious impulse.” (2)

Culture and art are thus capable of pointing beyond themselves to the realm of the sacred, to the depth dimension of human life. And whenever art is recognized and viewed as a contemporary cultural text, and thus potentially a theological text, it has the ability to generate what theologian John Dixon terms “the fatal questions: How am I related to the other? How ought I to be related to the other?(3)

Such questions have theological implications and can serve to propel us into the realm of the sacred, to seek the ground of our being. This understanding of the potential hierophanous nature of art is reflected and expanded upon by Margaret Miles who, in her 1996 book, Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies, suggests that film implicitly, if not explicitly, addresses the question of how human beings should live.

Such a fundamental question, Miles insists, must be concerned with “the common good as well as [with] individual flourishing.” (4) At the heart of this insistence is Miles’ belief that religion is primarily to do with the exploration and articulation of a sense of relatedness – within an individual, among individuals, within families, communities and societies, and with the natural environment. The “articulation” component of religion is commonly defined as theology – the way one talks about God and humanity’s relationship with God.

What then does Hamam: The Turkish Bath say about the “sense of relatedness” at the heart of religion? What does it say about how we as humans should live? In response to these questions I will lift up two interconnected themes of the film – self-discovery and community. Yet before undertaking an exploration of these themes I'll provide a brief synopsis of Hamam: The Turkish Bath.(Oh, and if you want to avoid spoilers to do with how the film unfolds and ends, you might want to stop reading now!)

Francesco and Marta

Hamam: The Turkish Bath tells the story of Francesco and Marta – an unhappily married business couple living in contemporary Rome. Quite unexpectedly, Francesco (Alessandro Gassman) receives word that he has inherited property in Istanbul from his estranged Aunt Anita. Francesco travels to Turkey to rid himself of the property, yet discovers that it is a traditional, though derelict, Turkish steam bath, or hamam.

Staying with the Osman family who had looked after his aunt and who continue to take care of the hamam, Francesco is gradually drawn into their family and community life. Wandering the sunny and cobblestone streets of the old neighborhood of the city where the hamam and its attached apartments are located, Francesco’s hectic pace of life begins to slow down and mellow. He also finds and reads the letters of his deceased aunt – letters that evocatively convey how the city and the hamam transformed her life. He discovers – and is himself awakened to – the richly sensual and adventurous life that his aunt had lived.

All of these experiences culminate for Francesco in two radical decisions. First, despite a lucrative offer from a developer (who plans to raze the neighborhood and build an upscale trade center), Francesco decides not to sell the hamam but to instead restore it. His decision completely derails the developer’s plans – a fact that will later have momentous consequences. Yet it makes him a hero in the hamam’s working class neighborhood. Second, Francesco finds himself drawn to Mehmet (Mehmet Gunsur), the young son of the Turkish family he is living with. Mehmet reciprocates and the two are soon lovers.

Unaware of her husband’s spiritual and sexual awakening, Marta (Francesca d’Aloja) arrives from Rome with divorce papers. She finds her husband a changed man, an altogether more appealing mate – albeit, one with a male lover. Unaware of the relationships blossoming and disintegrating around them, the hamam’s custodian and his wife welcome Marta and rejoice in Francesco’s decision to restore the hamam.

In time Marta comes to realize that even though she still loves Francesco, their relationship is over. Moments after her departure for the airport, an assassin hired by the spurned developer fatally stabs Francesco on the steps of the hamam’s adjoining apartments. Word of the tragedy reaches Marta before she leaves the country. At the hospital she finds a hallway filled with neighborhood people mourning Francesco. When a nurse brings her Francesco’s wedding ring, she breaks down and is comforted by Mehmet – his shirt stained with the blood of the man they had both loved and now lost.

The film ends with Marta standing atop the hamam. Beyond her, the domes and minarets of ancient Hagia Sophia rise against the misty Bosphorus.

In a voice-over Marta reflects upon the new life that she too is now discovering in Istanbul, and of the “light breeze that loves me.” As this breeze gently caresses her hair and clothing, Marta lifts to her mouth the ornate cigarette holder that had once belonged to Francesco’s aunt.

A glimpse into the dimension of the soul

In the 1982 anthology Religion in Film, Michael Bird explores the notion that film has the potential to serve as hierophany – as a manifestation of the sacred. Bird, in the tradition of Mircea Eliade, defines hierophany as “the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural ‘profane’ world.” (5)

Haman: The Turkish Bath powerfully demonstrates that it is not just objects that allow for a “glimpse into the dimension of the soul,” (6) but human experiences (such as community) and processes (such as the journey to authenticity). Bird also quotes writer and cinematic realist Amedee Ayfre’s observation that cinema – like all forms of art – is, first and foremost, an instrument of discovery.

Insofar as culture possesses the quality of leading out of itself and toward the religious dimension as the realm of self-transcendence, cinema as a representational art, by remaining true to its realistic properties, is invested with the power for the disclosure of that continual striving within culture toward the holy, by bringing us into the presence of the real as it “calls up” meaning from the inner depths. (7)

Self-discovery and community

More than one commentator has noted that Hamam: The Turkish Bath is a film about self-discovery. It is a journey of discovery facilitated in large part by Francesco’s (and later Marta’s) immersion into the sights, sounds and sensual delights of Istanbul – and also into a sense of community.

Such a process correlates with John W. Dixon’s understanding that it is within the space between the self and others that relation is embodied, that the human life of forms and in forms is lived, reflected upon, and expressed. It is, according to Dixon, a “symbolic space” (8) – one that points to the mysterious and elusive, to what filmmaker Werner Herzog describes as “poetic, ecstatic truth.” (9)

Yet, although what they point to maybe mysterious and elusive, the elements of form that Dixon speaks about, are themselves neither obscure nor mysterious, but rather the “elements of our ordinary life . . . lived in space with objects and persons.” (10)

The film opens with a depiction of Francesco and Marta living lives very much closed to elements of ordinary life. Indeed they are depicted as unfulfilled, lonely and spiritually hungry – despite their obvious wealth and cosmopolitan lifestyle. At the beginning of the film, Francesco, for instance, is shown sitting forlornly on the expansive patio of their Roman villa – still imagining that he hears the sound of the couple’s cat, missing for over six months. He knows, the film can be read as saying, that something more elusive and interior is missing from his own life and from his life with Marta.(11) Indeed, the only sense of community conveyed in the scenes set in Rome is via the vibrant and noisy get-togethers that the couple’s Asian housekeeper, Nelly, organizes with her own family and friends after Francesco has left for Turkey and Marta is in Milan working on a decorating assignment with Paolo – the man she has been having an affair with for two years.

In Istanbul, Francesco’s openness to the objects and people of the hamam’s neighborhood facilitates his awakening to another way of life other than that which “fits neatly into the high-stress, workaholic, image-conscious lifestyle, in which eating and talking and loving is snatched between phone calls and client consultations.” (12)

Francesco is also depicted opening up to the experiences of his late aunt – conveyed to him through her letters. When Marta finally confronts him about his new life in Istanbul, Francesca reveals the depths of his prior unhappiness in Rome where he lived “a rotten existence.” Thus his aunt’s words very much become his own:

Istanbul is what I was searching for. I’ve been here a week and it’s taken my breath away, my slumber. How much time I wasted before reaching here! I have the feeling that it was waiting for me – silent, while I chased after a life as tiring as it was useless. Here things flow more slowly and soft. This light breeze dissolves your worries and vibrates your body. I finally feel that I can start again.

The nature of the journey

The film’s slow, almost meandering pace, is reflective of the often serpentine path of self-discovery and transformation. Yet there are also specific cinematic techniques employed to convey the nature of the journey. One of the ways the film charts Francesco’s movement away from his superficial cosmopolitan lifestyle toward a more authentic state is through the depiction of Francesco and his cell phone.

On the first night with the Osmans, Francesco receives and conducts a business call while sharing an evening meal with the family. Later when his cell phone rings, he quickly tells the caller to call back at another time. Eventually he shuts the phone off immediately when it rings – visibly annoyed with its intrusion into his new life.

The haunting sound of a distant ship’s foghorn is also symbolically used by Ozpetek as a cue – a device – to signify important steps in Franceso’s journey of self-discovery and transformation. We hear this sound distantly at three crucial times in the film – when Francesco learns that the property he has inherited is a hamam, when he exchanges glances with Mehmet over his first meal with the young man’s family, and when he enters his aunt’s room and discovers a picture of himself as a young boy.

Yet perhaps the clearest heralding device for Francesco (and thus the audience) is the old man whom Francesco assists during one of his first forays into the hamam’s surrounding neighborhood. The weary old man asks Francesco to help him to a place where he can rest. Francesco taps on the window of a nearby shop, but the old man directs him instead to a building across the street. It turns out to be a hamam.

Once inside, the man insists that Francesco experience the relaxing steam and water of the hamam – “You absolutely must!” he declares, a call that will be echoed later in one of Francesco’s aunt’s letters – “One must be happy in life; one must!”

The traditional Sufi music employed throughout the film is sweeping and melodic – and its often trance-like quality is totally in keeping with the film’s inexorable sense of the need for journey, for change. Yet to Ozpetek’s credit, the film does not divorce this need from the need for authentic community.

The role of community

Family meals and rituals are employed throughout the film to convey the strength and nurturance that community plays in one’s journey to authenticity. Indeed, the film clearly suggests that we find our authentic self within community, and that community in turn is strengthened and nurtured by authentic individuals. Accordingly, individual liberation is intrinsically connected to communal liberation or, as Margaret Miles insists, the common good and individual flourishing are inextricably bound.

It is interesting to discern such things in this film in light of my previous viewing of a number of films by Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, a director who conveys in his films no sense of community or social solidarity. Instead, impersonal and unrelenting forces seemingly propel people and events. Clearly, both Pasolini and Ozpetek seek to address in their art the destructive nature of unfettered capitalism, yet without the recourse to community, Pasolini ultimately paints an extremely grim and hopeless picture of humanity's future (i.e., Salo, 1975).

Although Hamam: The Turkish Bath ends with Francesco’s murder, the audience is nevertheless left with a distinct sense that his life and legacy will not die, that he has strengthened and nurtured the community just as the community had strengthened and nurtured him. We see, for instance, the family and Marta continuing the work of restoring the hamam. Furthermore, Marta is depicted in the final moments of the film as a woman open to transformation – open to the same flow of transforming energy (represented in the film by “the light breeze that loves me”) to which both Francesco and before him, his aunt, had opened themselves.

Theologically, this flow of transforming energy can be termed “the sacred,” or “God.”

How do we feel its breath in our lives?

How do we open ourselves to it and allow ourselves to be refreshed, challenged and renewed?

How does it call us to journey, to live?

What are the communities it calls us to embrace – to nurture and be nurtured by?

These are some of the religious questions that, for me, waft like steam from Ozpetek’s beautiful and graceful Hamam: The Turkish Bath.

Michael J. Bayly
May 2002

1. Miles, Margaret .R., Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies, (Boston: Beacon Press), 1996. p.x
2. Moore, Thomas. Care of the Soul, p. 290
3. Dixon, John W., Art and the Theological Imagination, (New York: Seabury Press), 1978, p.9
4. Miles, Margaret R., Seeing and Believing, (Boston: Beacon Press), 1996, p.9
5. May, John R. and Bird, M., Religion in Film, (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1982), p.3
6. Ibid., p.17
7. Ibid., p.21
8. Dixon, John W., Art and the Theological Imagination, (New York: Seabury Press), 1978, p.9
9. City Pages: The Alternative Weekly of the Twin Cities, March 1998
10. Dixon, John W., Art and the Theological Imagination, (New York: Seabury Press), 1978, p.11
11. Interestingly, when the film shows an exterior shot of the hamam and its adjoining apartments the morning after Francesco’s first night with the Osman family, the sight and sound of a cat is depicted in the street outside.
12. From a review of the film found at

Recommended Off-site Link:
Hamam Cleanses Turkish Cinema - Emrah Guler (Turkish Daily News, October 1997).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Reflections on the Overlooked Children of Men
Pan’s Labyrinth: Critiquing the Cult of Unquestioning Obedience
Reflections on Babel and the “Borders Within”
The New Superman: Not Necessarily Gay But Definitely Queer
What the Vatican Can Learn from the X-Men
Where Milk Gets It Wrong

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