The blue Aegean sparkles under blazingly sunny skies. The view from a promontory is of rocky cliffs rising from a curving, fertile, beach-fringed bay, and of a series of crags jutting up out of the water like stepping stones to a hopeful horizon. It’s a picture that’s nobody’s idea of Hell, but all Hell needs is a devil in residence, and this strip of the Turkish coast has one, plus another in waiting. Popular Turkish actor Onur Saylak makes an audacious, provocative directorial debut with his adaptation of Hakan Günday’s novel, a film that impresses for its craftsmanship and performances almost as much as it depresses with its relentless, uncompromising depiction of humanity’s basest depravities. Presenting the refugee emergency from a viewpoint rarely explored — that of the traffickers who exploit it for monetary gain — Daha “More” adds a dimension of horror to the humanitarian catastrophe, and convincingly suggests it’s a crisis that corrupts everyone and everything it touches.
Gaza (Hayat Van Eck) is a bright young man who has never left the small Turkish seaside town of his birth — and why would he, given that, as he intones in one of the film’s confessional voiceovers, he is “the son of the most important man alive.” His father, Ahad (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan), hardly looks the part: balding, boorish, jowly and rotund. But Ahad’s real business is not the fruit and vegetable delivery service indicated on his van; it’s the lucrative job of collecting and hiding batches of 20 or 30 people at a time as they flee, mostly from Syria, before some equally unscrupulous boatsmen smuggle them away again across that treacherously calm-looking azure sea.
Ahad has a cellar built specially for this purpose and it’s Gaza’s job to maintain it, to provide the refugees with the basic necessities of food and water while Ahad feels little compunction in exercising his Godlike powers over them, extorting further cash bribes from the men and raping the women or pimping them out to local bigwigs. And so this is a pivotal moment for Gaza, who has a decision to make about who he is, with his own innocence and decency little more than a guttering candle in the darkness of his vicious and venal father’s example. The already grim proceedings take an even grimmer turn following the death of a little boy and the subsequent murder of his mother, and the point of no return arrives quickly.
Saylak has cast his film with care, and gets exceptionally committed performances from Taylan and, in particular, from Van Eck. The sullen Gaza seems to almost physically change over the course of the film, from baby-faced boyishness to a sunken brutishness, his eyes set deep beneath a heavy forehead. In certain light, he can look positively demonic — indeed Feza Çaldiran’s stark, rich photography makes painterly use of directional light throughout, with slices of illumination slanting through otherwise inky frames. Even the sun-drenched exteriors start to feel claustrophobic as the promise of that far-off horizon turns into a taunt.
By contrast, a few of the more literary conceits don’t quite work in translation from page to screen, such as the odd occasional inter-title counting down of days, or the sporadic voiceover that ultimately acts as a red herring concerning the film’s intentions for Gaza. And there’s a sense that in following the novel all the way down to its most hellish extreme and lingering there, the film might actually somewhat dull the message: Its villains become so devoid of humanity they’re somehow easier to dismiss as monsters. Less might have benefited “More,” which is already a difficult, despairing watch, but the ferocity of its intent is both justified and admirable.
It’s ironic that the term for moving undocumented refugees is known as “human trafficking” when its inevitable effect is the dehumanization of its victims. And the central theme of “More” is how that process happens in parallel: the less Gaza sees these people as people, the less of a person he becomes. From there it’s no big leap to understand the film’s most sobering message — one that sits sickly in the pit of your stomach for some time after the movie ends: The lost souls searching for a better life over that duplicitous horizon are far from the only souls lost to this crisis.