"Present Tense" is a movie about a woman who learns to give up all hope for the future. And she learns it very, very slowly.
The film from Turkish writer-director Belmin Soylemez played at the Wisconsin Film Festival on Tuesday afternoon. It's a slow-moving film that's understated to the point of opacity, with moments of feeling emerging occasionally from the languor only to submerge again. So it's not exactly a crowd-pleaser.
Mina (Sanem Oge) is a woman living in Istanbul who is desperate to emigrate to America. To build up her nest egg for the trip, she takes a job in a café as a resident fortune-teller, reading the patterns in the coffee grounds left in the customers' empty cups.
One of the few witty touches of the film is that nobody, neither the café's other fortune-tellers or the customers, seem to address or care whether there's actually anything to this mysticism. The fortune-tellers just want to make a little money, and the customers are happy to pay as long as they hear something hopeful, that a new man or some financial success is just around the corner.
Everyone in the film is living for their imagined future success; Mina is living for the day she moves to America, her best friend lives for the day when her married boyfriend will leave his wife, the café owner has dreams of wealth, or at least of paying off all his maxed-out credit cards.
For a brief moment, all three learn to enjoy and appreciate their present circumstances, to live in present rather than future tense. But then everything comes crashing down, and by the end Mina has no illusions about either her present or her future.
"Present Tense" is beautifully photographed, but Soylemez holds Mina in such reserve from the viewer that it takes a long time to empathize with her situation. The film wallows in the melancholy stare she wears for most of the film, dropping faint hints of past tragedies, but not enough to keep us invested.