“The Sultan likes happy endings.”
Director Ferzan Ozpetek sets his film Harem Suare (Last Harem) in the twilight days of the Ottoman Empire. The story revolves around Safiye (Marie Gillian), a harem dweller who was sold to the Sultan at age 8. Many of the women in the harem have yet to gain the aging Sultan’s attentions, and Safiye is one of the women who have not yet been chosen. Following an incident, Safiye gains the Sultan’s eye. He asks her name, and suddenly she is one of the favoured ones–this boils down to a night (or more) with the Sultan. If the union is fruitful, and a harem dweller bears a child, then this increases her stature in the community. She will earns jewels from the Sultan, and great envy and possibly even death from her many rivals ….
The harem is at once a protected, cosseted world for the women who live there, and a vicious hotbed of palace intrigue. Dozens of beautiful women try to find ways to spend their boring, unchallenging lives as they idle around the magnificent palace. They are little more than exotic, expensively maintained pets. Intensely threatened and jealous of one another, the women’s captivity breeds hatred and rivalry. To wile away the hours, the women spend hours naked in the steam baths, are massaged with expensive, fragrant oils, become addicted to hashish, and tell each other stories.
Story-telling is at the heart of Harem Suare, and this method of narration creates a languid timelessness and wonder–while also adding some confusing elements to the tale. One tale of harem life is told by the slave, Gulfidan (Serra Yilmaz) to a room full of harem dwellers. Gulfidan relates the story of Safiye’s rise in the harem, and her forbidden relationship with the eunuch, Nadir (Alex Descas). Other, fragmented sections of the film are composed of a now-aged Safiye (Lucia Bose) telling her story to Anita (Valeria Golina), a distraught Italian woman, as the two women wait in a train station for their respective trains to take them to their destinations. These two stories weave back and forth allowing the viewer to piece together the final tale. However, some viewers may be confused by some of the time elements–especially in the aging of Gulfidan. Gulfidan is Safiye’s maidservant, and she tells Safiye’s story to a room full of harem women long after the harem system has been disbanded. One should accept this impossibility as a device to illustrate the timelessness of a mystical conundrum.
Harem Suare is an exotic tale that exposes the incredible decadence and cruelty of a despotic system. The settings are breathtakingly beautiful, lush, and sensual. The story is tragic, and it conveys with a magnificent irony, the fate of the women who were selected for their unique talent and beauty but discarded when they ceased to be useful. The director’s subtle analogy to the fate of the harem women against the fate of the stray dogs of Istanbul is loaded with pathos. This is an absolutely stunning film, and by far my favourite Ozpetek film to date. The film is in Italian, Turkish, and French with English subtitles. Note to Ozpetek fans–the character, Anita is also the owner of the haman in Steam.