Married couple, Francesco and Marta, run an interior design business in Rome. Francesco is suddenly forced to go to Istanbul to sell a property left to him by a forgotten aunt: a Turkish bath, or hamam. Welcomed into the Turkish family who looked after his aunt and the bath, his intentions of selling the hamam begin to fade and he sets about restoring the place. He forges deeper bonds with the caretaking family and Istanbul, and starts a sexual relationship with the son Mehmet. Marta, apparently preoccupied by the prolonged absence of her husband, comes over to Istanbul. She is shocked to discover her husband making love with Memo in the hamam. In the heat of the moment she asks Francesco for a divorce: to which he consents. Marta had actually come over to Istanbul to ask Francesco for a divorce so that she could get together with their colleague Paolo. However, until she found him with Memo, the changes wrought in Francesco had made her realize that she did still love him and that maybe a relationship with him was still possible. Marta is not certain about what she wants anymore, but fate and Istanbul are about to decide for her.
Ferzan Őzpetek is a rare example of a high profile foreign film director working in Italy. Born in 1959, he left his native Turkey at the age of 20 to embark upon a career in the Italian film industry, where he has now worked for over thirty years. Hamam: Il bagno turco, was the first film he directed and set the tone for a series of films staging family melodramas with a queer twist. Its other distinctive element, addressing Őzpetek’s own hybrid identity by shooting in both Rome and Istanbul, and involving both Italian and Turkish characters, carried through more moderately into later subsequent successful works, such as Le fati ignoranti/The Ignorant Fairies (2001), situating sexually and ethnically heterogenous groups in an Italian setting. The surprising popularity of Őzpetek’s unconventional films has been rightly celebrated by the director and critics as a reflection of the increasing liberality of Italian popular culture. However, perhaps because of Őzpetek’s own insistence on a model of bisexuality that ignores the gender of its love object, and a reluctance to interrogate the representation of homosexuality, critics have overlooked the tendency of this new kind of male melodrama to privilege male sexual agency and to construct women as bearers of an abstract and idealized femininity. This tendency conveniently chimes with dominant notions of femininity in Italy, and explains some of the perplexing weaknesses of Őzpetek’s cinema. Indeed, those films which do attempt to engage with a female perspective (La finestra di fronte/Facing Window, 2003), for example, seem oddly mundane in their depiction of female heterosexual passion. Hamam provides a blueprint for the melodrama in which the surprise declaration of homosexuality remains the trump card of the male character, even from beyond the grave, from Le fati ignoranti to the more recent Mine vaganti/Loose Cannons (2009).
The potentially orientalizing qualities of the geographical split between Rome and Istanbul have been discussed (Girelli, 2007), however, it is the gendering of those locations as masculine and feminine respectively that polarizes the terms of the melodrama. Francesco’s engagement with the feminine is encapsulated by the hamam of the title, almost a character in itself, whose nurturing interior allows Francesco symbolically to re-connect with his female side. Significantly he inherits this building from his aunt, a lost second mother, into whose shoes he steps on his arrival in Turkey. He honours her dedication to the hamam and its naked male bodies, freed momentarily from the heteronormativity of Turkish patriarchy, first by maintaining the hamam and refusing to sell it to property developers, and secondly by engaging in sexual relations with the boy his aunt saw grow up.
However, in conceiving of the feminine as symbolic ‘Other’, Őzpetek’s protagonist, as his gay male characters often do, must slide inevitably towards death, framed significantly as a dark female statue just before Francesco is stabbed on the steps of his new home. It is a vengeful Westernized woman, in the form of an entrepreneur who wishes to modernize the area, who stands behind the killing: the castrating female, and the dark side of the hamam’s protective womb. Female characters are maternal (traditional), vengeful (modern), or neutered and neutralized, like Francesco’s wife, in Őzpetek’s solution to an apparent exclusion of women from bisexual flux. Nowhere is it clearer than in his first film, that in conceiving of women as the symbolic feminine, his gay male characters, who must step away from a traditional masculine identity towards the feminine, are unlikely to survive. Őzpetek turns to melodrama as a genre precisely because of these unspoken tensions in his stories, which find an outlet in sudden twists, implausible revelations, and fatal endings.