The third Italian film in the last 12 months to offer nostalgia for a provincial past as an antidote to the Eurocentrized present, Ferzan Ozpetek's charming debut feature, Hamam: Il Bagno Turco ( the Americanized title Steam is a bit more blatantly a come-on), is remarkable in its modesty, so graceful and unforced in style that even the more hysterical or predictable moments simply slide by without causing undue concern. Like the Turkish culture that gradually steals the soul of the hero, the film works a subtle charm, floating on a low-key eroticism without ever forcing any particular dramatic point.
The story is not a particularly original one: Francesco (Alessandro Gassman) is a successful but not particularly content designer from Rome who inherits property in Istanbul from an estranged aunt. Arriving in Turkey with the intention to sell the property a Turkish steam bath he slowly becomes fascinated with the aunt he never knew and with the rituals and customs of the bathhouse (including a lazy and benignly innocent homoeroticism). Though the viewer will have guessed that Francesco will decide to stay in Istanbul and restore the rundown hamam and that his yuppie wife, Marta (Francesca d'Aloja), will not be happy about it long before he does, director Ozpetek is more interested in conveying his sensual immersion than in stressing culture shock.
The film's leisurely narrative mirrors Francesco's slow embrace of his new home. Subplots come and go even a few blatantly melodramatic touches but every time a clear image of the film starts to form, some other idea wanders in to supplant it. What eventually unfolds is rooted less in the twists and turns of the story (a run-in with business interests trying to buy out the neighborhood surrounding the steam bath, Francesco's coming out, Marta's surprise visit, etc.) than in the Turkish ambiance, and although Ozpetek pulls off a neat surprise at the end, even that twist remains in the service of the film's general spirit of rediscovery. By carefully avoiding the contrivances built into the story, as well as the trap of celebrating exoticism for its own sake, Steam maintains a surprising and convincing integrity.
Opens Aug. 13 at the Tivoli.