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STEAM-TURKISH BATH, THE (HAMAM) (director/writer: Ferzan Ozpetek; screenwriter: Stefano Tummolini; cinematographer: Pasquale Mari; editor: Mauro Bonanni; cast: Alessandro Gassman (Francesco), Mehmet Gunsur (Mehmet (Memo)), Francesca d’Aloja (Marta), Halil Ergun (Osman), Serif Sezer (Perran), Basak Koklukaya (Fusun), Zozo Toledo (Zozo); Runtime: 96; Strand releasing; 1997-Italy/Turkey/Spain)
“A love affair with a city rather than with one another.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A stressed out couple, Marta (Francesca d’Aloja) and Francesco (Alessandro Gassman), living in Rome are running a successful interior decorating business. Francesco learns that his aunt, someone that he hardly knew because she lived for many years apart from his mother, has just died and left him her house in Turkey. He journeys to Istanbul to sell the property, and learns from his Turkish lawyer Zozo that the property has a hamam (Turkish steam bath) attached to it.

In the exotic confines of Istanbul passions that have been closed to the young man open up. Francesco feels the warm breeze and quickly settles into the slower pace of life and relishes the kindness of the Osman family, who ran the hamam for his aunt. Francesco’s aunt married a Turkish man and when he died she used the inherited money to become the first western woman in Turkey to operate a hamam, which by tradition is an exclusively male place.

Aunt Anita fell in love with the Turkish way of life, and fixed up the run-down hamam she bought in the center of town. Under her care it became respected as one of the best in the city. Occupying her house is: the kindly patriarch Mr. Osman (Ergun); his sensitive wife Perran (Sezer); their college-aged, very attractive and sweet daughter Fasun (Basak); and, her sensual brother Memo (Gunsur).

Hoping for a quick sale and an early return back to his thriving business, he runs into problems as he believes he can’t trust his lawyer whom he thinks is delaying the sale because he is trying to knock down the price for the potential buyer. To add further conflict the woman who wants to buy the hamam tells him she is buying up all the property in the neighborhood to build a trade center, and he impulsively decides not to sell. And even though he is told that the hamam is now out of fashion and the one he has inherited needs lots of repairs, Francesco decides to remain and restore it to its traditional beauty. He is also told that the woman he refused to sell to is very dangerous.

The family helps in the hamam renovations and they also get him acquainted with the delicacies of Turkisk food, which they serve him in generous portions. Meanwhile, Francesco tours the ancient city streets to absorb the city’s rich culture and reads his aunt’s old letters she sent to her sister that were returned unread, describing her appreciative love for such a filthy city like Istanbul. In one letter she tells his mother: “One can be happy in this life, Giuliana; one must.”

These sentiments have a deep emotional affect on Francesco. He realizes that he was not happy in Italy, as there was something missing in his life. Here he found an inner peace and a replacement family for his recently deceased parents. He also can’t get over the way Fusun looks at him in an admiring and loving way while Memo initiates him into the pleasures of the hamam, where he also finds comfort in his arms.

Unable to communicate with her gentle husband, Marta arrives in Istanbul to tell him about her new plans for a divorce — and of the affair she’s been having with their business associate Paolo for the last 2 years.

Warning: spoiler to follow in next paragraph.

After Francesco agrees to give her what she wants, the warning Zozo gave him comes true. Francesco gets knifed to death in the street. But the film ends in a surprising way, as something bizarre happens to Marta and she has a change of heart and becomes the replacement hamam owner for his aunt. She has also mysteriously fallen in love with the city.

It was a strange emotional love affair that this film offers its protagonists — a love affair with a city rather than with one another. The film presents a lesson on the old and new cultures of both Italy and Turkey. The director Ferzan Ozpetek is of Turkish birth and spent two decades living in Italy, and these are his realistic observations of both cultures. But for a film about passion, this one was very reserved showing no nudity or sensual scenes.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”