'Ayla' sparkles but doesn't catch fire

In this drama about young Turks in Germany, the plot and subtext are more confusing than necessary.

Ayla 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
Ayla 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
‘AYLA ‘Directed by Su Turhan.Written by Turhan,Beatrice Dossi and Thomas Schlesinger85 minutes Hebrew title: Ayla.In German and Turkish.Check with theaters for subtitle information.
An interesting slice-of-life movie about ethnic Turks in Germany, Su Turhan’s Ayla features a very appealing lead performance by Pegah Ferydoni. The film, Turhan’s first feature, however, is marred by abrupt shifts in tone and certain underdeveloped characters. But it sustains interest in the fate of its heroine as it reveals a side of life that few movies have looked at – the adult children of immigrants who have grown up in Europe but are not fully integrated into European society, due to a combination of their own personal choices and the prejudices of the mainstream.
Iranian-born Pegah Ferydoni plays Ayla, a young, free-spirited Turkish woman who has grown up in Germany. She speaks fluent German, has a job as a nursery-school teacher and works at a snack bar at a nightclub. For her night job, she dresses up in a blonde wig, blue contact lenses, miniskirts and thighhigh boots, an outfit her conservative father, with whom she is no longer on speaking terms, finds appalling. Her less rebellious sister, Huyla (Turkiz Talay), runs a successful bridal dressmaking shop that is patronized by the local Turkish community. Huyla is the family peacemaker, trying to convince Ayla to make amends with her father, but Ayla is not interested. When, by chance, Ayla meets Ayhan (Mehdi Moinzadeh), a Turkish-born photographer who has also grown up in Germany, Huyla thinks there is a chance that Ayla will find her place in the Turkish community. But Ayla, while she is immediately attracted to Ayhan, has no intention of settling down or doing anything to win her family’s approval.
Ayhan also struggles with balancing his family obligations and his modern life. His sister, Hatice (Sesede Terziyan), wants to leave her husband, who has returned to Turkey, for a man she loves.
Coincidentally, Hatice’s daughter, Elif (Mehtap Yurtseven), attends Ayla’s nursery school, and Ayla notices that the girl seems downcast. Ayhan’s father instructs Ayhan and his brother that they must avenge the family’s lost honor – i.e., kill Hatice. Ayhan’s thuggish brother has no problem with this request, but Ayhan feels caught between his respect for his father and his love for his sister. Somewhat improbably, Ayla is simultaneously carrying on a casual sexual affair with Ayhan and hiding his sister and niece in her apartment. As much as Ayla and Ayhan seem meant for each other, Ayla’s priorities are clear: Her first duty is to protect Hatice, and she is appalled that Ayhan would even consider harming her.
While Pegah Ferydoni is incredibly lovely as the heroine, her character is oddly conceived. She is a martial-arts expert who kicks butt whenever she is challenged, and in some scenes she seems about to morph into a Tarantino heroine. Her relaxed sexuality seems hard to explain. She jumps into bed with Ayhan as casually as a character in a shallow American romantic comedy might. I’m not saying no Turkish woman in Germany would do this, only that it seems jarring, as does her elaborate disco queen get-up for her job at the snack bar.
In spite of his failure to act heroically from the get-go, Ayhan remains a sympathetic, if confused, figure. However, something about his tolerance of Ayla’s unconventional ways seems to defy explanation. While it is refreshing to see a movie that does not telegraph every detail of its characters’ lives, some more explanation of Ayla and Ayhan’s motivations would have helped give the film a clearer focus, which would have added to its intensity.
At times, as I watched Ayla exercise to music or mug shamelessly for her nursery-school charges, all of whom adore her, I was reminded of Flashdance. Ostensibly, no two movies could be more different but, like Flashdance, this film focuses on its adorably unconventional heroine, whom everyone seems to worship, who works out frequently and who wears skimpy, flattering costumes. Just the fact that the comparison occurred to me emphasizes the uneven tone that characterizes this film. It would have had more impact if the director had decided whether he wanted it to be a light-hearted comedy about two assimilated Turks in Germany falling in love or a turbulent story of modern young people fighting destructive prejudices. It’s still engrossing, but it could have been stronger.