‘Steam: The Turkish Bath’ offers a profound look at a centuries-old phenomenon
by Nancy Ford
The Baths. The Tubs. The Shivitz. In Turkey, they’re called Hamam.
Within moisture-soaked marble walls, men gather to enjoy the vapor, the fitness equipment, the spas, the pool, and maybe an intimate encounter in a private room. Whatever name we choose to call them, they’re an age-old, semi-secretive bastion of maleness where women generally aren’t welcomed.
A haven for gay men? Not necessarily. The place, whose doors seldom close, is frequented by men of every circumstance, walk of life, and race—whether gay, straight, or bi, closeted or confused, married or single, professional or blue collar. Here they come and go, if you will, sometimes unwinding for hours, sometimes for just a few fleeting minutes. What they all have in common is their need to blow off a little steam.
But that level of release and rejuvenation sometimes carries with it extreme consequences. We get a glimpse of some of those consequences, as well as the benefits, in Steam: The Turkish Bath (Il Bagnoturco: Hamam).
In it, Italian businessman Francesco’s (Alessandro Gassman) marriage to Marta (Francesca d’Aloja) is disintegrating long before he travels to Istanbul to inherit the neighborhood Hamam, or steambath, left to him by his mysterious and removed aunt. Through letters, we learn that Francesco’s never-married aunt recognizes something in her nephew that moves her to leave him the Hamam.
Upon his arrival in the ancient city, Francesco’s love for the Hamam soon grows. And how could he resist? The Hamam was “a welcoming and discreet place for a man and his pleasures,” as the aunt described her business. His affection develops not only for the Turkish culture in general held so dear by his departed aunt, but also for young Mehmet (Mehmet Günsür) who frequents the Hamam.
Time passes, and Francesco becomes more and more consumed by the Hamam and its pleasures—and certainly by Mehmet. He is nearly unrecognizable to his wife who travels from Rome to confront her otherwise-occupied husband. The same steam that has released and rejuvenated him eventually also scalds him.
Whether it’s a metaphor for HIV/AIDS, a study of patriarchy vs. matriarchy, an indictment of infidelity, an examination of the power of gaydar, or something else entirely, this winner of multiple international cinematic awards well-illustrates the vast, vast differences between male and female sexuality and intimacy, despite its “no gay deed goes unpunished” 1950s-flavored climax.
1997. Ferzan Ozpetek directs. Italian and Turkish with English subtitles. Raro Video Cinema Art Visions (rarovideo.com).