The Funeral

The Funeral (Cenaze) (2023)

The Funeral (Cenaze) had its Scottish première at the Glasgow FrightFest 2024.

The Funeral (Cenaze) opens with a shot looking out from inside a car as it travels along a rainy country road to a grim gathering of people waiting under umbrellas outside a building. This sequence explains the title – for the car’s driver Cemal (Ahmet Rifat Sungar), though sat by himself at the wheel, is not strictly alone, as his vehicle is a hearse, and there is a body in the back which he is transporting to a funeral. It is important that we open with a POV shot – for this latest feature from writer/director Orçun Behram (The Antenna, 2019) not only makes us passengers to its protagonist’s strange journey, but also largely confines us to his perspective, his headspace and even his dreams, so that by the time that opening drive to a funeral has been reprised and reconstituted in the closing sequence, we can no longer be sure whether what we are witnessing is real, or a nightmare in a damaged brain.

“You are a weird guy, brother,” Cemal will be later told by his former schoolmate Hakan (Eren Çigdem)  “Aren’t you afraid of riding with a dead body? God forbid something happens.” Cemal is weird – a chain-smoking, hard-drinking loner and ‘muttering man‘ who speaks in a mumble and never smiles – but as he tells his old friend, the cadavers that he moves about the country are “not going to come back to life.” Yet when Cemal is woken up in the middle of the night and tasked by his colleague Ekrem (Orhan Eskin) with the peculiar, obviously suspicious assignment to “get lost for a month” driving a young girl’s corpse around the country until the “big family” that killed her requests the body’s return, it appears that something is, as Hakan so absurdly suggests, going to happen. Unattached and promised generous remuneration for his efforts, Cemal takes the job – but soon realises that though Zeynep (Cansu Türedi), the girl in the back of his hearse, is not alive, she is not quite dead either. 

This living dead girl, with an occult sigil carved into her chest alongside the scars of her past sufferings, is everything that Cemal has ever dreamed of: a quiet companion for his lonely travels. Yet she is also hungry for flesh – and while Cemal willingly gives of himself to keep her nourished, he is soon turning to, and preying upon, other lost souls to feed her unspeakable appetites. On this crooked backroad journey, he catches up with his estranged sister Ayse (Gizem Erdem) and with Hakan, while sharing drinks and accommodation with the fugitive Semih (Emrah Altintoprak) and evading the police – but it is clear that if he wishes to stay with Zeynep, he must first face her family at the end of the road.

The Funeral

The Funeral certainly is a road movie – but is also, like Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001) and Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All (2002), a flesh-eating romance, while, in keeping with its Turkish setting, it cannibalises the wide rural vistas of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s œuvre and the cultic extremity of Can Evrenol’s Baskin (2015) and Housewife (2017). Shot mostly in handheld long takes, Behram’s film presents itself in a naturalistic, almost documentary-like mode, but the reality that it screens is unstable. Is Cemal really part of a diabolical double-act with an undead lover, or might he in fact be entirely solo on his killing spree, with only his vivid imagination conjuring this companion in crime? For like Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Cemal haunts a remote roadside motel while committing murders for the dead woman he loves, and his own sanity is always in question. 

All of which makes the film’s climactic confrontation very much a two-edged blade: for it is both exposé of a nation’s patriarchal abuse and exploitation of women, and cultic staging of one man’s psyche and yearnings for acts of escapist heroism to justify – at least to himself – everything that has happened while he has been in the driving seat. There are a lot of grotesque masks worn in The Funeral, but perhaps Cemal’s is the most inscrutable, as he seeks simultaneously to liberate a woman from the oppressive stranglehold of her family, and to drive around with a passenger who, though certainly flesh and bone, is more figure of fantasy than fellow human being. Where this odd couple is headed, and what further damage they might do along the way, is left to the viewer’s imagination – but as Cemal’s mind is revealed to be as mangled and traumatised as his body, we are left uncertain how much further down the road we are willing to travel with him, and how different this errant, corpse-strewn odyssey might look if seen through our own eyes. Either way, though, this is one hell of a ride, mapping out the dark side of Turkey’s psychological hinterlands.

strap: Orçun Behram’s nekromantic road/cult movie charts a lonely hearse driver’s relationship with his not quite dead cargo

© Anton Bitel