Yilmaz Güney & Atif Yilmaz – Zavallilar AKA The Poor AKA The Wretched Ones (1975)
The Poor Ones tells the semi-melodramatic story of three poor friends who met in prison where have been sent to on various offenses. These three friends do not want to get out when they are released. What are Abuzer, Haci and Arap going to do when they will be out? They have no one, no jobs… Apart from Haci and Arap, everything will be the same for Abuzer, who doesn’t know where to go. He will still be alone, starving on the streets of the big city.
Although steeped in earnest melodrama, it’s still hard to dismiss The Poor Ones as a lesser film within Yilmaz Guney’s canon because it’s surprisingly daring for its vivid, utterly grim depiction of the grungy stratum where Istanbul’s poor survive by finding whatever niche role they can exploit for food, shelter, and a little love.
Co-writer / director / co-star Yilmaz Guney was arrested and sent to jail early into production for ‘harboring anarchists’ in his home, resulting in several compromises with his character of career loser Abuzer – one of three criminals reflecting on the events that led them to being incarcerated. The original script likely showed the three characters as adults committing their heinous crimes before incarceration, and additional material as they struggle to find some food and shelter after they’re released in the middle of winter, with no skills or prospects whatsoever.
To save a reported half hour of completed footage, the compromise, as devised by Guney and co-writer / new co-director Atif Yilmaz was to expand the flashbacks of Guney’s character, Abuzer. The first material shows Abuzer as a child, witnessing his mother’s murder of his abusive stepfather after the brute attempts to make money off her through prostitution. The event dooms the boy to a life of crime and misery, and the character is later shown as a teen, trying to impress a pretty girl at the carousel where he works, only to lose his job for almost causing a riot. The sympathetic girl arranges a job for him at the factory where he works, but with a criminal record, the door of opportunity and salvation is slammed in his face.
The actor who plays teenaged Abuzer mimics the same hunched over posture and hungry look to maintain continuity with Guney’s performance, and Guney’s retention of a beard camouflages the nuances of his face, which also helps in muting any dissimilarities between the actors.
The flashback sequences of the other newly released inmates – Arap (Guven Sengil), and Haci (Yildirim Onal) – feel more natural, but the child and teen episodes of Abuzer provide some variation, since there is an inherent structural monotony when the other characters sit and begin their tales in a kind of ‘I remember when…’ pose prior to a rare optical dissolve (signaled by a sudden darkening and poor focus in the footage).
Arap’s backstory is the most compact: smitten with a pretty girl whose mother forbids any private activities until they’re married, Arap presumes he’s going to receive a tea business promised to him by a landlord for working gratis as a security guard during the building’s construction. When the greedy oaf reneges, he smacks him in the head and takes a chunk of money for wages owed – a foolish act that undoubtedly sends the police to the door of his beloved, where he’s promptly arrested. Haci’s past is more grim: after saving a prostitute he loved from the abuse by a hood and his moll, he turns against his love when she takes on a John. Woven in between is the hood’s revenge for striking him, with the final payback being arrested for assaulting the prostitute.
Not unlike Yilmaz’ Yol [M] (1982), the script focuses on three male characters who’ve sinned because of moments of weakness or circumstances that arose because of their poverty, and the look and feel is almost neo-realist, filming the actors in filthy sections of the city, an surrounding them with peers and colleagues in similarly awful circumstances. Everyone is greedy, few show fidelity to each other, and the film’s ending is punctuated by a sudden break of a friendship that was supposedly iron-clad among the ex-convicts (although whether the finale was improvised or always intended in the script is unknown).
Like Yol, there’s also a regard for women as rubbish, and it makes Poor Ones tough to digest. Yilmaz may have wanted to inject grave social commentary in his film, but he also chose the format of the popular Italian crime thriller, mimicking the grungy cinematography and a largely monothematic score orchestrated with synths, guitar, and percussion reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s contributions to the genre. (The association with the Italian police or crime thriller isn’t accidental; in a scene near the end, the teenage Abuzer gazes at various movie posters, including The Sicilian Clan (1969) starring Alain Delon.)
In the Italian crime film, women are seductive, sleazy, victimized, and in Guney’s film they’re similarly victims (Arap’s fiancée), whores (Haci’s love interest, turning up to 20 tricks per day), and cheats (the tarty flirty-bird teenage Abuzer desires, but is clearly involved with another and wealthy man). Men call women whores, mothers call daughters whores, women call each other whores; it’s a weird worldview that’s either an attempt to show the dog-eat-dog selfishness that runs through the impoverished world of the ex-cons, or it’s a reflection of an attitude which, similar to the Italian crime films, was acceptable to Guney. It’s also easy to theorize all the foul behaviour and language is part of the mirror Guney was holding up to his audience, but it’s strangely monochromatic.
The Poor Ones foreshadows the deeper social commentary Guney would apply in Yol, a film far outside of a popular, heavily codified genre, but it’s much less resonant. The documentary footage within Poor Ones is compelling, but it also functions as padding: in the prologue we’re introduced to the grubby subdivisions of Istanbul, and a group of kids stealing wares from itinerant street peddlers. Guney’s editors nevertheless created compelling montages of a city that was for western audiences was seen only in period dramas, touristy travelogue romances, or in its best-known role as a backdrop for James Bond in From Russia with Love (1963).
Although he acted in more than a 100 films, Guney would star in one more film – Friend / Arkadas (1975) before stepping exclusively behind the camera, writing films for others to direct because of his periods of incarceration due to legal troubles. Even though he’s infrequently onscreen, he’s fascinating to watch for creating a physical portrait of a wounded soul. Whether he’s crouched like a dog, waiting for a warden to drop a cigarette butt, or approaching an eatery’s window with the combination of hunger and embarrassment for his state as a criminal with no worthwhile past, no discernible future, and an ambiguous present, Guney is wholly compelling, and it’s a tragedy this dynamic artist wasn’t able to continue his career as one of Turkey’s top actors.
— KQEK.com [Mark R. Hasan]
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