Grade: B

Love’s a bitch in this angry, sometimes brutal film by Fatih Akin about two Turkish-Germans who enter into a sham marriage that takes them into very extreme behavior. “Head-On” isn’t exactly a pleasant viewing experience, but it has a passion that’s difficult to ignore. When we first meet the “hero,” Cahit Tomruk (Birol Unel), he’s engaged in a night-long orgy of self-destructive drinking and violence, culminating in literally driving his car into a brick wall. Taken to a psychiatric hospital where he finds the easygoing counselor of no help, he encounters a spacey young woman named Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) who badgers him about marrying her so that she can break away from control by her rigorously traditional family. Cahit dismisses the idea as crazy, but after his release allows himself to be persuaded, and with the help of Seref (Guven Kirac), a comically earnest friend who poses as his uncle, he convinces her parents and brother to agree to the marriage.

What follows, however, is not quite what he expected. After the nuptials Sibel becomes a wild thing having her fun not only with Cahit but with multiple partners; and although her nominal husband tolerates this for a time, he eventually tires of playing the fool and kills one of the men she’s slept with. Convicted of the crime, he’s sentenced to prison. Sibel, shocked by what’s happening into a realization that she has true feelings for him, leaves Germany for Turkey, where she’s treated as a pariah and brutalized. The final act shows Cahit following her eastward after his release and the two reaching a bittersweet understanding by the close.

“Head-On” is ultimately a tale of two lost, wretched people who are saved by finding one another, but the message it sends is that the route to salvation can be a brutal one, and the final destination might prove decidedly imperfect. And Akin chooses to tell the story in vivid strokes that make the picture feel like a series of cinematic slashes rather than conventional episodes. He does allow for occasional moments of respite–the sequences with Seref, for instance, and periodic musical interludes by a female singer who comments on the action accompanied by a small band–but for the most part until the calmer concluding reel, his film is harsh, bitter and caustic. (Those musical interruptions, incidentally, might be intended as a satire of happily romantic musicals, but if so the device isn’t really successful. For one thing, they don’t follow the conventions of song-in-action musicals, and for another they break the tension that the picture is otherwise so successful in maintaining. If that’s the intent, it’s a miscalculation.) Outsiders can’t fully appreciate another undercurrent in the film–the tension between the Turkish and Germanic cultures that Cahit and Sibel feel–but it’s always vaguely present, too, lending a layer of conflict beyond the merely personal to the proceedings. As a result the picture is a challenge to sit through; it almost dares you to identify with the lead characters, to perceive that however different from us they might seem, there are human connections we share. But “Head-On” is worth the effort, not only because Akin is a skillful filmmaker, but because he’s chosen his cast wisely. Unel gives an astonishingly committed performance as a man whom you might at first dismiss as odious but with whom you eventually come to empathize; it takes a remarkable actor to get a viewer to make that transition, but Unel manages the job. Kekilli isn’t up to that high standard, but she makes Sibel’s extremes of flightiness and anguish plausible–a substantial accomplishment. Among the rest of the cast, Kirac stands out, but the smaller roles are almost uniformly well cast; even Hermann Lause makes a strong impression in his single scene as Cahit’s well-meaning but ineffectual therapist. Technically, the film looks more than a bit ragged and overlit, but those very characteristics make for an atmosphere entirely appropriate to a story that is itself sharp-edged, designed to encourage discomfort rather than simplistic consolation.

“Head-On” describes a lot of things about Fatih Akin’s film, from the way in which Cahit tries to kill himself to the manner in which he and Sibel clash. But it also characterizes the thrust with which the picture hurls itself directly at the viewer. You may be inclined to flinch and turn away from it, but that would be a mistake. Stuck with it, and by the end it will stick with you.