In recent years, the landscapes of Anatolia have been densely mapped out in the relatively popular work of Nuri Bilge Ceylan. With a name inextricably linked with the region – to a degree where it’s incredibly difficult to google “cinema” and “Anatolia” without being hammered with links to Ceylan’s work – it’s often surprising when other works pop up and remind audiences that Anatolia’s winding complexity is impossible for a single filmmaker to capture. In The Lamb – a film focuses specifically on issues of social standing, poverty and ritual in the region – Kutluğ Ataman broadens the cinematic discourse around the region, eschewing fantastical narratives for a slower, intimate fable grounded in a deep realism. On a tonal level, the film operates as a black comedy at times, albeit on a relatively uneven level. That is, there are plenty of stretches of exhausted and pained scenes throughout The Lamb where the audience is left anxiously waiting for the slightest inch of comic relief – Kutluğ Ataman’s film delivers laughs throughout (and the film needs them), although the work remains an overwhelmingly bleak and harrowing portrait of poverty in Anatolia regardless.
The distinctions between the town and the city are clear from the opening scene, when the 5-year-old Mert jokes “you’re talking like they do on television” to another villager. Visually, The Lamb works with the awesome backdrops provided by the Anatolian mountains and fields, frequently framing the small figures in the film against the overwhelming natural world that envelops them. Feza Caldiran’s cinematography both relies on these landscapes, whilst simultaneously working on letting the scenes bleed into each other. As a result, time and space within the film possess a certain lightness: when Adnan (Mert’s father) goes into the city, it feels almost as instant as Mert walking into a forest. This malleability gives Kutluğ Ataman the ability to delve into the surreal and fantastical, all within the mundane occurrences of the small village.
Social commentary is central to The Lamb, with all of the dilemmas emerging out of the poverty-stricken state of Mert’s family; with this eventually ending in conflict as they are forced to choose between adhering to societal conventions and supporting themselves. In the sphere of the village, Kutluğ Ataman carries the narrative and scope of the work with ease, however, when the director tries to give the film its momentum it flirts with predictability, cliche, and relies on lazy characterisations of the supporting cast for plot development. Before the extended final scene, The Lamb almost falls apart – attempting to foray into examining the functions of masculinity and desire within the isolated town, but with far too much brevity to say anything substantive – and begins to meander. This series of dramatic scenes don’t prompt enough empathy to work and feel shallow in articulation. The Lamb manages to return to form in its theatrical-conclusion, as Kutluğ Ataman’s directing returns to the sphere of relentlessly dark comedy. In the end, The Lamb excels as a Maxim Gorky-esque piece of social realism, underpinned by moments of politically-tinged comedy.
The Lamb is a powerful work, undermined by several scenes, that returns to form with the strength of Kutluğ Ataman’s directing, with the work marking the 20th anniversary of his first feature film. While it never realises the potential it flirts with in the opening and final scenes, it remains a thought-provoking and revealing study of class in Anatolia; adding to increasingly broad international image of the region, that has been intertextually-woven in recent years through the growing global presence of Turkish cinema. The Lamb is a worthwhile watch, even if it leaves viewers longing for something more; with enough awe-inspiring shots and laughs to fill up its relatively lean duration.