by Michele Calderon
Released on Netflix on January 6, 2022 Part 2 of The Club continues its fascinating exploration of the lives of people working at a famed Istanbul nightclub during the mid-1950s, in four short, but rich and fulfilling episodes. Part 1 (released in November, 2021) focused on the lead character of Matilda Aseo, the daughter of a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family, attempting to rebuild her life after serving a lengthy prison sentence for killing her lover, a Muslim man who conspired with others to denounce her family to the authorities.
In 1942, the Sephardic Jewish community – one of the long-established, non-Muslim minorities in Türkiye (the name of the country was officially changed in December 2021 by decision of the Turkish President and Parliament) – was subjected to persecution via a wealth tax imposed by the government, during the politically fragile time period following the 1938 death of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder and first President of the Turkish Republic. Failure to pay the tax (in cash) within the extraordinarily short 15-day deadline imposed by the government led to the ruin, and displacement to labor camps, of many of Türkiye’s prominent Jewish citizens.
Watching Part 1, I was thrilled that The Club’s creators had chosen to openly tackle this dark, often sidestepped chapter of Turkish history. It is no wonder that the series has been so widely applauded by the Sephardic Jewish community not only in Türkiye but well beyond its borders, including in the US and in Europe. As François Azar, vice-president of Aki Estamos (Here We Are- a leading Sephardic organization in France) stated in an interview, the initial images of Part 1 showing Matilda in prison reciting the traditional Shabbat prayer in ladino was “un-hoped for”, setting the tone for a “courageous series” by screenwriters who obviously had “really done research”.
Heritage Of Sephardic Jews
I met Matilda at the beginning of this magnificent series, yet in many ways I already knew her. My family background on my father’s side is Sephardic Jewish. Prior to moving to France, he had grown up in Thessaloniki (Salonica – to Jews of Spanish heritage), the city in northern Greece which at one time was part of the Ottoman Empire, and was home to a large Jewish community over the course of centuries. Incidentally, Thessaloniki is also the birthplace of Atatürk, and is prominently mentioned in the last episode of Part 2. Growing up in Paris, I knew women – mothers and wives of my father’s friends – very culturally similar to Matilda. I heard them speak their language, Judeo Spanish, also known as Ladino, a mixture of mainly Hebrew and old Spanish (which we hear in many songs serving as a gorgeous musical backdrop to The Club). I watched as they prepared typical foods such as borekas, the Sephardic equivalent of the Turkish börek. And I listened as they talked about their faith and their love of family, in particular the love of mothers for their children, daughters and sons.
With the narrative of the series intertwined with my own life story, the Sephardic families portrayed in The Club had meaningful, personal resonance for me.
Elements Of A Good Story
The Netflix Türkiye Original Series is an exceptional piece of storytelling, for the high quality of its production, beautiful set design, music, and acting, and the adept directing by series creator Zeynep Günay Tan. Part 2 does not disappoint, continuing with a high degree of excellence in all these aspects and more. I almost felt cheated, when the series ended on the last images of Episode 4, so absorbed was I in the story of these characters, and anxious for them to find a measure of happiness, after much turmoil and tragedy.
[Note to Readers: the following review sections contain major spoilers to the storylines of Part 2.]
Two key themes are addressed extraordinarily well in this second part of The Club:
The first theme is accepting who you are is the key to inner peace and happiness. A key undercurrent of the story focuses on the fundamental issue of identity: “who am I, and can I be happy if I am not fully myself ?”. This question is powerfully addressed through the individual stories of several of The Club’s main characters:
Whereas Part 1 was primarily focused on telling Matilda’s story, a lot of Part 2 screen time is dedicated to her rebellious teenage daughter Raşel (the Hebrew name Rachel in its Turkish spelling), and her determination to defy her mother’s wishes and make a life with her Muslim lover Ismet, from whom she is expecting a child. Raşel, eight months pregnant when Part 2 starts, knows that Ismet is a playboy (he is in fact carrying on a parallel affair with an American girl), and averse to commitment. Yet, having found out the truth that her mother killed her father, she runs to Ismet for comfort and defiantly decides to marry him in spite of Matilda’s objections.
But who can forget, and Raşel certainly hasn’t, the slap she received from Ismet when he found out she is Jewish (in Part 1); and the fact that Ismet conceals her Jewish identity from his traditional mother, who knows her by the name of Aysel, the Turkish first name Raşel hides under. The continuous uncertainty as to whether Ismet loves her, and accepts her, for who she is hovers over Raşel’s every action and emotion during Part 2. (Actress Asude Kalebek in her debut role, is wonderful at portraying Raşel’s youthful impetuousness, anger, and confusion).
Ultimately, a life and death situation on the streets of Istanbul ablaze with nationalistic fervor and hate of “the other”, drives a close-to-term Raşel back to her mother and the safety of the Club, to have her baby. Praise is also in order for Bariş Arduç, for his excellent portrayal of Ismet’s ambivalence, torn between the duty he feels towards his unborn child, the protectiveness he can’t help but feel towards Raşel, and his unspoken urge to leave it all behind to follow Diana.
As Part 2 begins, the ambitious, sophisticated Club owner Orhan Bey (played by Metin Akdülger) is preparing to receive the ultimate accolade as Istanbul Entrepreneur of the Year. In reality, Orhan leads a life of secrets, obsessed with concealing his real identity as Niko, a Greek Orthodox immigrant hiding under a politically correct Turkish Muslim persona. Orhan/Niko gives in to ever stronger negative impulses as his mother’s dementia along with the investigation of Orhan led by rival businessman Kürtaş Bey threaten to reveal him. Orhan/ Niko’s belief that he must conceal his real identity at all costs, drives him to the ultimate criminal act. By the end, all that Orhan Bey has built, has disappeared in a blaze of fire.
During Part 1 we also met the flamboyant, big-personality Selim Songür, musical star of the nightly shows at The Club, and his struggle to reconcile with his real self – an artist and a gay man – on the backdrop of his family’s rejection. That struggle intensifies for Selim, brilliantly played by Salih Bademci.
Pressured by Orhan Bey to tone down his act and put on a more “normal” show, that will prevent him from wearing the flashy stage costumes he purchased in Paris, Selim struggles to fall in line, well aware that Orhan’s order robs his show of all originality, but also robs him of his true identity. The experience also brings back for Selim, the painful memory of beatings he received as a child at the hands of his father intent on making him “normal”. Selim ultimately gives in to Orhan’s wishes, a decision that pushes him further down the path of self-hate, manifested in drunken, angry outbursts against everyone around him.
The second recurring theme throughout Part 2 is the redemptive power of love. Just as denial of identity can turn heroes into villains, or at the very least, lost souls, viewers discover how the love that even a highly flawed person can feel for another, can lead to redemption.
One of the most surprisingly welcome transformations is that of Çelebi, the Club’s manager whom Matilda knew as Aziz, the errand boy who worked for her family. Aziz had a key role in the Aseo family’s ruin, ostensibly out of spite, because of his feelings for Matilda who ignored him, and loved another man.
A man whom we were initially led to despise, is gradually shown in a more positive light. Thrust into a position of greater responsibility at the Club by Orhan Bey’s frequent absences, and by Kürtaş’ manipulations to take over ownership of the establishment, Çelebi is increasingly shown to do the right thing. He shows kindness to a terrified young boy working at the Club’s kitchen, telling him the broken dishes are just “an accident”. He tears up the sizable check written by Kürtaş to buy his support. But it is primarily Çelebi’s undying love for Matilda, that allows him to sublimate his negative impulses and finally, do good.
In an understated, but very meaningful scene during Episode 3, Çelebi returns to Matilda key documents and possessions to free her from her obligation to work at the Club. He asks if she intends to follow her long lost brother, Ishak, to America. In Firat Taniş’ subtle acting performance, and in his dark eyes that soften each time he looks at Matilda, the viewer can see how Matilda’s departure would devastate him; yet Çelebi holds back, demonstrating a respectful, unselfish demeanor that can only be interpreted as true love.
Indeed, ever so slowly, Matilda begins to see him in a different light, a remarkable turn of events in a story that showed these two characters at odds for most of the series.
Matilda is the steady thread connecting the two parts in the series because, in spite of all the hardships she’s been through, she is the only character who holds her head high and knows exactly who she is, flaws and all. Her support for Selim Songür, often expressed as “tough love”, ultimately helps this wounded soul climb out of his depression and begin on the road to embracing his true nature.
In a key scene of Episode 3, Matilda takes leave of Selim, telling him “I saw you as a brave man who was chasing his dreams …I was wrong. Turns out, you weren’t ever on that stage… You were just hiding behind all the spotlights and the glitter. You never stepped up on that stage as Selim, as yourself”.
That statement has a clear effect on Selim, as we get hints of this in the last few scenes of the series.
Similarly, in Matilda’s repeated attempts to help her daughter in spite of Raşel’s outright rejection, we see her commitment as a mother: “estoy aki”, “ben buradayim” she says to Raşel in Ladino, and in Turkish: “I am here”. Her steadfast, maternal love manages to break through Raşel’s barriers in the end.
In addition to this cohesive and thematic storytelling, The Club shines with its unflinching depiction of the historical events surrounding that period of time in Türkiye. While Part 1 focused on the plight of the Sephardic Jews during the 40s, Part 2 chose to highlight another troublesome era of Turkish history, the 1955 riots against the Rûm (Greek Orthodox) citizens of Istanbul, also highlighted in BluTV’s recent production Yeşilcam.
We already saw glimpses of discrimination against this minority group when, in Part 1, Orhan Bey was pressured to replace his skilled Greek workers at the Club with less-skilled Muslim employees. This theme is further amplified in these four episodes. The day chosen by Raşel and Ismet for their wedding – September 6, 1955 – is also the day when a quickly spreading report of a purported bomb attack against Atatürk’s childhood home turned Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki, led to violent riots, and looting of businesses owned by the Rûm.
All the individual story arcs depicted in The Club come together in the final episode filmed at an increasingly tense pace, giving an authentic sense of the turbulent times lived by the citizens of Istanbul in September, 1955. Through the eyes and actions of its main characters, Episode 4 powerfully shows us how love and acceptance, and their polar opposites – hate, rejection and fear – produce different outcomes for human beings placed under extraordinary stress. Some, like Orhan, succumb to panic and commit unspeakable acts. Others, like Selim and Raşel, finally break through the fear to embrace who they are, and in the process find true meaning in their lives.
Though fraught with tension and tragedy, and scenes of looting and violence that the filmmakers cleverly matched with real documentary footage of the rioting that occurred in Istanbul on that fateful day, The Club ends on a true message of hope and acceptance.
There is always hope, for those willing to do the hard work … Do not fear the “other”, because the “other” might be inside yourself.
As this review is written, it is uncertain whether Netflix will renew The Club for another season. Its creator and director Zeynep Günay Tan is said to have initially conceived the show as a two-part series and there seems to be some closure at the end for several of the key characters. Nevertheless, the very last images with the voice of Raşel and Ismet’s daughter in narration, wondering about her father, could be leaving the door open to another installment.
Many fans of the show, including this reviewer, will be waiting with bated breath, for any news of the continuation of this compelling story.
Article copyright (c) North America TEN & Michele Calderon
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