In Semih Kaplanoglu’s Bal (“Honey”), Turkish beekeeper Yakup (Erdal Besikçioglu) risks his life scaling tall trees in search of elusive black honey, prized for its healing properties as well as its rich taste. The film, which details the childhood of the poet Yusuf (Bora Altas), portrayed in Kaplanoglu’s Yumurta (“Egg”) and Süt (“Milk”), is set in a rural village where sweetness is hard to come by, and its pursuit can be dangerous, even life-threatening. But its simple, unadulterated pleasures are matchless, and the same can be said for Bal’s best moments.
The scenes of shy, wide-eyed Yusuf scampering to and from school, begging the teacher to call on him even though his profound stutter makes reading aloud nearly impossible, strongly invoke Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s House? But the tight framing of Kaplanoglu’s fixed-camera tableaux and the film’s almost supernatural colors lend the scenes a glimmer of deadpan wit, as if they’ve been intensified and distorted by the prism of memory.
Although it isn’t necessary to have viewed the trilogy’s successive parts, knowing that Yusuf will end up making words his art certainly adds to the scenes where he struggles to get out the most basic words: They, too, are sharpened and given greater flavor by their hard-won achievement. Around his father, Besikçioglu, Yusuf speaks easily, rattling off the days and their properties from the family almanac. But Besikçioglu is a fitful presence in the boy’s life, gone for weeks at a time as he seeks out better (and presumably more perilous) places to plant his hives. The film’s opening, in which Besikçioglu plunges halfway to his death and lies suspended by a rope from a broken branch, infuses their interactions with a sense of looming dread that eats away at their easy sentimentality.
Kaplanoglu’s filmmaking falters in the latter stretch, once Besikçioglu goes missing in the woods and the near-mute boy is left with his uncomprehending mother and the furtive pursuit of the ribbons his teacher hands out for good performance. The movie starts to drift, unfocused, feeling as lost as Yusuf himself. Bal mingles the bitter and the sweet, but it gets mired in its own stickiness.