Thursday,20 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1121, 8-14 November
Thursday,20 June, 2019
Issue 1121, 8-14 November

Ahram Weekly

Bipolar conquest

Soha Hesham watches the first commercial debut of a Turkish film in Egypt

Al-Ahram Weekly

It was on the last day of screening that I finally made it to Fetih 1453 (Conquest), what with the Panorama of European Film and other engagements. Yet even then, right before the Eid film season, the theatre had a fair number of viewers. The 160-minute feature, directed by Faruk Aksoy on a $17 million the budget, was showing with staid Arabic dubbing. It is an extravagant depiction of the sacking of Constantinople by Mehmet II Fetih, giving a comprehensive account of the siege of the Byzantine capital -- down to the Hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and popularised by the Ottomans to the effect that the commander who conquers Constantinople is blessed and so is that commander’s army: the film opens with the Companion Abu Ayyub Al-Ansari recounting that saying. It quickly moves onto the court of Mehmet II (Devrin Evin).
The young ruler was briefly crowned at the age of 12, on the death of his elder brother, but his father Murat II, who had willingly abdicated in his favour, had to be reinstated for a while -- and, following a string of feuds, the wannabe Alexander succeeded to the thrown some seven years later; he used the intervening period to build up support and learn the art of war with the help of a loyal councilor, Hassan (Ibrahim Celikkol). In 1451, at 19, Mehmet II sets about to take over what Christian territory was left in the region. He is aware that the world is watching him as he builds the Rumeli Hisari, a fortress also known as Boğazkesen (which means both “strait blocker” and “throat-cutter”) several miles away from the Anadolu Hisari built by his great grandfather Bayezid. As such he takes full control of traffic in the Bosphorus, making the siege easier and incensing the enemy.  
But little effort is made in the film to make a balanced presentation of the two poles of the battle: this is the Ottoman version of the story. Constantipole, which became the imperial capital in AD 330 under the command of the Eastern Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, has already been besieged many times but was only captured once -- and then by Catholics -- during the fourth Crusade in 1204. For a long time the remains of the empire broke up into Nicaea, Epirus and Trebizond, who sometimes joined forces to fight against the Latins to retrieve the Byzantine throne.
Now Mehmet orders Turakhan Beg to lead a large force into the Peloponnese to keep away Emperor Constantine XI’s brothers, Thomas and Demetrios, who might reinforce the emperor with the support he needs. Mehmet’s intentions are clear to Constantine XI (Recep Aktug), and, by 1452 when the Rumeli Hisari is finished, he is writing to the Pope promising to effectuate the union between them. But western Europe is too weak to oblige and, with the exception of a commander from Genoa name Giovanni Giustiniani (Cengiz Coskun) who arrives with a battalion of 700, he receives no support. Between 6 April and 29 May 1453, the siege of Constantinople occurs. The progress of the action is interwoven with a love story between between Hassan and Era (Dilek Serbest): the adopted daughter of Urban (Erdogan Aydemir) -- a cannon specialist who sides with Mehmet after refusing to help Constantine, and manufactures a cannon capable of destroying the city walls -- Era often disguises herself as a boy the better to help her father. Incredible enough in the otherwise pious atmosphere of soldiers praying and announcing the Jihad is the romance of Hassan and Era in public, surrounded by soldiers, recalling the Turkish period TV dramas to which Egyptian (and Arab) viewers have been addicted for some time and, true to form, ending with Hassan killed while raising the Ottoman flag over the walls of Constantinople while Era is pregnant with his son.
Aksoy, the director and producer of the film, started his career in in 2002 with Green Light, in which the battles are particularly powerful (sword fights take up a good half of the film). Here again Askoy’s costumes and sets prove enthralling, backing up Devrin Evin’s perfectly adequate performance. The final scene is the cliched happy ending, with an idyllic termination of war as Sultan Mehmet -- now a more credible heir of his role model Alexander -- enters Constantipole, assuring the people that they will live safely in their city and guaranteeing them full religious freedom, to which they respond with overjoyed applause, so much so that one woman hands the sultan her baby. Notwithstanding the concomitant cringing, the film was presented in Turkey as a wannabe Hollywood production, and it was well-received and praised in cultural and social circles for its clear message promoting Islam to the world; yet in Lebanon, for example, it was thought offensive enough to Orthodox Christians to be banned from theatres altogether.

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