There are two outcomes for the subjugated citizens of this bleak portrait of Turkey under the rule of presidential despot Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: you’re either killed by the state or enslaved by it. It’s not clear which is worse.
Orçun Behram’s first feature is not generous in its depiction of his home country, a state in which dissident journalists are still regularly imprisoned and government-spun propaganda is the primary news source. It’s not subtle either; its themes of caged birds and hive minds are, especially in its latter half, handled with about as much grace as a botched coup. But its portentous tone is undeniable, even as its lumbering resolution stretches a minimal story beyond breaking point.
Lead actor Ihsan Önal is a compelling presence as apartment block administrator Mehmet, his voluminous eyes perfect to reflect the horrors he must bear witness to. As he walks to work, we get a sense of the forlorn world around him, its looming, indistinguishable high-rises shot in demented wide angles by cinematographer Engin Özkaya. There, Mehmet is charged with overseeing the installation of a satellite dish through which, unbeknownst to him, the powers that be plan to subdue their citizens via sinister broadcasts, beginning with a midnight bulletin. It’s clear to us that all is not well when the engineer installing it takes the fastest route down from the rooftop (no, not the lift). Not that Cihan minds. As the building’s manager and the film’s bodily representative of the state, as well as a source of amusing bureaucratic absurdities, his concern is not for the poor bloke lying dead at his doorstep, but whether he finished the job before his unfortunate tumble.
He did. And as midnight nears, we find that the antenna is designed to spread more than just (dis)information. Soon a creeping black muck begins seeping into the building’s every crevice, spewing from behind bathroom tiles and dripping onto dinner plates from moldy ceilings, affecting everyone who comes into contact with it. This visual representation of the authorities’ insidious regime makes for some grisly scenes – including one reminiscent of Panos Cosmatos’s tar-slathered phantasia Beyond the Black Rainbow – even if the rules by which it abides are a little fickle.
But it’s the movies of Davids Cronenberg and Lynch that The Antenna most closely resembles. As a social commentary with elements of body horror, it brings to mind the Torontonian’s early output, its high-rise setting and grim contagion particularly evocative of his parasitic-sex flick Shivers. This eventually gives way to Lynchian domestic surrealism, as Mehmet searches for the source of the infectious sludge and descends into the bowels of the complex to uncover the totalitarian conspiracy. Throughout, Özkaya gives us regular close-ups of eyes and ears, the primary ways in which we ingest propaganda, accompanied by stinging hyperreal audio.
To its credit, The Antenna resists many of the expected spooks. But in opting against lazy jumpscares in favour of sustained dread, its recurring fake-outs get repetitive, and there are individual sequences, including some of its strongest, that take too long to get where they’re going.
This is a wider issue too. Behram’s debut is terribly slow, though that’s perhaps appropriate given that this is a movie in which at one point time literally stops. By the time its drawn-out final third gets underway, the director has wrung all he can from his premise, and the film’s increasingly hokey symbolism becomes more exasperating with every minute it ticks past the magic 90. Its climax, deliciously bleak as it is, couldn’t come too soon.
The finale features something of a victory for Mehmet and a fleeting symbolic triumph for freedom of speech. But the spark is snuffed out as quickly as it’s lit. You could call The Antenna’s portrayal of Turkey dystopian – but that would suggest a future that has not yet arrived.