Icerde (2016-2017) is one of the most popular Turkish dizis in recent times, being a pioneer in the action-filled mafia crime genre in Turkey. As a predecessor to the incredibly popular Cukur, which is at 93 episodes and counting, the 39 episodes Icerde enjoyed an unusually tight script for a Turkish dizi, enacted by a talented ensemble cast led by Cagatay Ulusoy, Aras Bulut Iynemli and Cetin Tekindor.
Inspired by Martin Scorcese’s Oscar-winning American gangster flick The Departed (2006), which in turn is inspired by Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs (2002), all three stories center around the concept of mutual infiltration of a crime gang and the police force, as the two sides get into a cat and mouse game of having the last word. What differs significantly are the plot themes, which seem localized for the target cultures.
Infernal Affairs and The Departed are both feature films that conclude in less than ~150 minutes. While Infernal Affairs focuses on the inner conflict that comes with adopting a second identity for more than a decade, The Departed depicts the futility of a system where the lines between the law and the lawless are blurred in a society driven by a capitalist structure. The range of violence, profanity and the graphic nature of the crimes vary widely in its execution, and are representative of the visualization each of the distinct target cultures have come to expect.
While Infernal Affairs questions the possibility of a person to fundamentally change and make conscious choices for the better, Scorcese seems to have chosen extreme versions of profanity-laden drama, that delineates the celluloid narrative from the common folk. When watching, there remains no doubt that it is fiction, but the tangled web of allegiances makes the audience question the social fabric that allows watered down versions of such relationships to exist.
Icerde liberally borrows plot devices from both versions but makes the story entirely its own by bundling in the unshakable love of family, a relentless fight for justice and a willingness to sacrifice so that good can win over evil. It provides meaningful justifications for why one can choose to change with the right impetus, while the two main representative characters for good (Sarp) and evil (Celal Baba) remain incorruptible in their convictions. With more than 5,000 minutes of television to tell the story, Icerde is a Turkish masterpiece.
Yusuf, Celal, Fusun & the Yilmaz Brothers
Sarp, the top ranking police cadet of his graduating year, is picked by Yusuf, the director of the organized crime division, to infiltrate the gang led by Celal Baba. Yusuf and Celal are archrivals since the yester years, but Celal has proven to be a slippery eel, able to sidestep the law while always leaving Yusuf a step behind. Sarp’s father Metin was a hitman for Celal, but Metin had died in prison without betraying Celal. This left Fusun, his wife, ashamed and also broken, as Celal had bought Metin’s silence by kidnapping his two-year-old younger son Umut. Umut had been picked up by a crook in Celal’s network while Umut and Sarp had been playing hide and seek. Later, the family had been led to believe that Umut was killed, leaving Sarp to wallow in guilt even though he was a young child when it happened, and Fusun to remain under a constant cloud of sadness. She keeps Umut (meaning Hope) alive by naming her restaurant after him and holding onto memorabilia that keeps his presence alive in their lives.
Sarp has been haunted by his little brother’s memory for much of his years, and when Yusuf hands him the chance to infiltrate Celal’s syndicate by using his father’s name as the reason for going rogue, it appeals to his sense of justice and perhaps his need to cleanse his family name. At the risk of alienating his mother, who has worked hard to raise him with love and a strong moral compass, he goes to prison for a year without letting her understand about the nature of his mission. As an inmate, he ingratiates himself with Celal’s cronies who had been friends with Metin, showcasing his superior fighting skills and cleverness in navigating prison life. Alyanak, a known double-crossing weasel who hangs on at the periphery of Celal’s world, inducts Sarp into Celal’s crime den where he quickly learns to gain and maintain Celal’s favor.
Around the same time, Sarp discovers a valuable clue that leads him to believe Umut may be alive, under Celal’s control. And finding his baby brother Umut becomes the one beacon of hope that keeps Sarp focused on his mission while his life is under constant threat and his loved ones come to loathe his association with Celal.
Mert Karadag (Umut Yilmaz)’s earliest memories are of abuse. Much like Oliver Twist, he became the de facto leader of the gang of street kids under Coskun (his kidnapper), always the one to take the punishment for any transgression. Coskun has named him Mert and is tasked with making him forget any ties to his birth family. Left hungry and impoverished for years, Mert’s gratitude knows no bounds when Celal Baba ‘rescues’ him and his friend Melek, and gives them a home under the guise of being the benevolent benefactor who ‘adopts’ them as his children. Celal is well-aware of Mert/Umut’s heritage and he never lets Melek know that she is his biological daughter. With diabolical intentions of using their gratitude for his own gain, he grooms Mert to go into the police academy and infiltrate Yusuf’s division, and he raises Melek to be a lawyer.
Mert is Celal’s puppet in many ways but the one thing that he only tells Melek is his unrelenting search for his birth family. He seeks a lifeline in this world where he can find his true identity, a mother who may have loved him, a family that might miss him. Without being able to articulate why, he is plagued with a vague feeling of love that he doesn’t feel within Celal’s circle. As such, he stands out among the other ‘orphaned’ children who are under Celal’s thumb, most of whom have given their full allegiance to the only father they know.
And thus, through all the trials and tribulations that the Yilmaz brothers face, the one thing that guides their ethics throughout the story is their deep desire to reunite as brothers and as a family
"Icerde": More than an Insider
By the end of episode one, Sarp is “Icerde” (Insider) in Celal’s gang and Mert is “Icerde” in Yusuf’s division. Only Yusuf knows that Sarp is an undercover policeman; only Celal (and Coskun, who was presumed dead) know that these two are brothers. Celal takes a twisted pleasure in pitting them against each other while playing the puppeteer in this game of life.
With the shared premise of a tug of war between good and evil while allegiances change and morph as in The Departed and Infernal Affairs, Icerde’s choice to make it an epic driven by love for family makes it very relatable to anyone looking for beautiful human stories. This kind of story-telling is the keystone of Turkish productions. A mother’s pain and her never-ending hope; a brother’s love and his unfailing quest; a little boy’s search under the halo of his forgotten reality; young girls looking for love; women looking for protection; men looking for father figures; sons waiting for fathers; criminals looking for redemption and those that are beyond repair – are all depicted beautifully.
An unusual and additional layer for a dizi are the well-choreographed fight sequences with inputs from Hollywood choreographers, which complements the sense of style and finesse in the character development and the cinematography. This ~5 minute clip below doesn’t require any translations to understand what I mean. As the mother tells her boys off, not knowing that she’s talking to both her boys, the blending of flashbacks and the boys’ equally cocky attitudes seem a study in theatrical excellence.
When it comes to keeping the audience honest in who they root for in this story, the producers build and execute plot lines such that Mert/Umut never becomes a direct murderer in the name of Celal, nor does Sarp indulge in senseless killing even though he can. They are both shown as heroes within a devilish world where the lines between right and wrong can become blurry.
Shrouded in doubts and misinformation, Mert lives up to his task of being an informant on sting operations but begins to falter when he finds love and earnestness in Fusun and Eylem, Sarp’s childhood friend and neighbor. As the brothers weave in and out of each other’s lives, with each encounter bringing them closer to their ultimate reunion, the series feels as though it is a celluloid depiction of what happens when the universe conspires to manifest a reality of choice. In the clip below, where they finally meet as brothers - once again on an iconic rooftop scene that seems a nod to the show’s predecessors - the music, the pace, the rhythm, their emotions, all seem to be in perfect harmony. The beauty of the Turkish storytelling remains in how much is said without needing to vocalize a scene.
As someone who has lost a younger sibling when he was about the age of Umut from when he was kidnapped, I share my most favorite clip from the show. It is of Sarp at a moment of weakness, ready to give up on his mission, exhausted from the lies and the despair of not finding Umut. In his dream, Umut the child comes to him and tells him not to give up looking for him. Sarp physically feels his presence, as he holds him close. Sarp’s love for his brother is “icerde” in his heart, and Umut’s search for his family is “icerde” in his. When the heart wants something so badly, hope is a beautiful thing; and when Sarp/ Cagatay holds the imaginary Umut as though he is real, it brought back many of my own dreams where the reality of death can never be accepted.
All of Cagatay Ulusoy, Aras Bulut Iynemli and Cetin Tekindor outdo themselves in the nuanced portrayal of their characters.
Cagatay, in playing Sarp as a brash police officer carrying the burden of Yusuf’s life-long dream and his mother’s despair, while he navigates life-threatening situations with wit and candor, is simply fantastic. He physically transforms to create an unflinching, mature super cop, making it hard to believe that he was only 25-26 years old at the time of filming.
Mert/Umut is Aras’ breakout performance, showcasing his character’s immense inner conflict in the midst of an unraveling reality as he knows it. A traumatized street child who misses being part of a real family, his child-like joy and his criminal behavior are all depicted with a maturity and flair that belies the relatively limited roles from his past.
At the risk of being lynched by fans of the young, handsome actors, I will go out on a limb and say that, for me, Cetin Tekindor as Celal Baba really steals the show. A veteran in his craft, his turn as a sinister, socio-pathic crime lord whose only allegiance is to himself, is brilliance personified. He believably portrays a man with an over-inflated ego to whom biological ties meant nothing if it threatened his self-image. He has no sense of real allegiance to anyone and sees everyone as being expendable. He lives life on his own terms till the end.
All actors for the other major roles for Yusuf, Fusun, Melek, Eylem, Yesim, Daud, Alyanak and Coskun were great in their given parts, creating distinct personalities that allow the audience to grow with the characters as the show progresses.
Even though Icerde is produced on the shoulders of giants such as Scorcese’s The Departed and the critically acclaimed Infernal Affairs franchise, it still managed to become a prized trophy in the Turkish showcase of dizis. It opened doors to new audiences by growing a male following typically ignored in the traditional Turkish romance or family dramas. It has led the way of success for other mafia genre dizis such as Cukur. The 39 well-crafted episodes written by Ertan Kurtulan and Toprak Karaoglu have a perfect blend of drama, suspense, action, humor and romance; enacted by a talented cast; a suspenseful but haunting musical score by Toygar Isikli; and an action-packed directorial mastery by Uluc Bayraktar, maintains Icerde as a tight story that is widely appreciated by global audiences as movie making genius.
(c) mh./ @entrespire, twitter
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