Venice 2023 review: Hesitation Wound (Selman Nacar)

“With Hesitation Wound Selman Nacar delivers on the promise of his first film, producing an excellent legal drama that looks beyond procedure to the people behind the system.”

How can you defend somebody like that?” It’s a question often heard when lawyers defend some of mankind’s most evil. The answer to that is of course: the law. Anybody has the right to legal representation in court, no matter the gravity of the case. It must be a moral conundrum for any lawyer though, making the choice between providing a person with legal counsel at all cost and reprehension at what that person may have done. But how far are you willing to go to win a case? It is that question the protagonist of Selman Nacar’s second film Hesitation Wound wrestles with. Nacar’s follow-up to his much lauded debut Between Two Dawns is not unlike some of the better works of Asghar Farhadi in how it creates a moral minefield for its lead character to traverse through a series of twists and turns, while subtly criticizing the narrow-mindedness of some elements in Turkish society and the classicism and corruption of Turkey’s courts.

Canan (an outstanding Tülin Özen) is a criminal lawyer who has taken up the defence of a man accused of murdering his employer. As if her workload wasn’t big enough, her mind is also preoccupied with her mother who is hospitalized and effectively brain dead. Her sister wants her euthanized, but Canan can’t take that step quite yet. Her case in court seems pretty solid and she has a star witness who can prove her client’s innocence. It all starts to fall apart though once the witness doesn’t show up for the final hearing. When Canan gets hold of him he seems hesitant to take the stand, and when he explains why, the floor under Canan’s case cracks open. But she still needs to represent her emotionally unstable client, who threatens desperate measures should he be sent to jail (the title clearly hints at what said measures would be). With her case severely weakened, Canan decides to make a desperate attempt at turning things around.

Whilst Hesitation Wound is very much a courtroom drama, the actual case is secondary to the arc of the lawyer at the centre of it. Canan unravelling in tandem with her case doing the same is where the film’s drama comes from, and also brings up its core questions. Özen owns the role and the film with a performance that starts out formal and measured but grows more dramatic and powerful the more her character comes undone. Canan is not the protagonist of the film, she is the film. It’s her moral judgements that are the focus, her desperation to save her client and the lengths that drives her to. Compassion is what drives her, even for a fellow man who admits to a heinous crime, and perhaps that is the answer to the question that started this review.

Nacar has more up his sleeve though than this examination of moral conundrums. There are subtle but clear digs at the misogyny embedded in the legal system, as several male colleagues and adversaries during the hearing make no effort to hide the sarcasm in their remarks about Canan’s higher education in Istanbul and abroad, making it clear that despite her superior qualifications her gender still garners less respect within the local court system. She is an outsider, something even her sister throws at her feet, though in a more heartfelt and understandable manner.

But Hesitation Wound also, perhaps without as much subtlety, takes a stab at Turkey’s justice system itself, which has been reeling ever since Erdogan enacted his purges on it. The unwillingness to investigate the rich son of the murder victim as a possible second suspect because he is several rungs higher on the social ladder is a direct indictment that could be seen as a local issue; the courthouse leaking everywhere until a ceiling comes crashing down in the middle of the hearing is a symbolic representation of a larger problem with the country’s justice system.

Hesitation Wound‘s core remains a personal and moral drama though, and Nacar masterfully balances the procedural with the emotional, the social commentary an extra layer that wasn’t really needed but is much appreciated. As good as Between Two Dawns was, Hesitation Wound shows growth, as Nacar directs the film with laser focus, hardly a frame wasted. This is a character piece, and the director knows it: the work behind the camera is sober and in service of the story and the character’s arc. That makes the film visually somewhat bland and perfunctory, but the approach works very well for the moral character study being presented. With Hesitation Wound Selman Nacar delivers on the promise of his first film, producing an excellent legal drama that looks beyond procedure to the people behind the system.