The offbeat German love story In July opens on a long lonesome stretch of Bulgarian highway, where a lone traveler pulls his car over when day mysteriously turns to night. It's a total eclipse of the sun, and the roadside stop gives Isa -- the husky, scowling, unshaven driver, a German of Turkish descent -- an opportunity to spray a little odor-reducing disinfectant on the dead body in his trunk.
Soon, Isa gives a lift to Daniel, a lovesick Hamburg high school student science teacher who's been on a near-Odyssian journey looking for Juli (German for "July," hence the movie's title), a new-age flake he'd met just a few days before. He's bedraggled when we meet him -- no money, no passport, no glasses -- and definitely not the picture of responsibility he's drawn for himself so far in his overly earnest life.
So with a long car ride ahead, Daniel tells an irritated Isa -- who had initially tried to run him over -- the story of his relationship with Juli, which began in an outdoor bazaar, where Daniel defined the sun as a ball of hot gas, and Juli, who sold him a sun ring with magical powers, defined it as the giver of life.
So begins a tale of yin and yang, of the literal versus the ethereal, of darkness and light embodied by the eclipse, and by the pairing of Isa and Daniel (he's "light" in this case), and Juli and Daniel (who's somewhat "dark" compared to Juli who, like her namesake Juliet, is the sun).
It's hard to tell how seriously we should take German writer/director Fatih Akin's pea-soup-thick metaphors and melancholy. He was, after all, just 27 when he made the movie, and he casts himself as a snarky Romanian border guard who lets Daniel pass only when he hands over his (stolen) van. Like Tom Tykwer, whose Run Lola Run was a kicky international hit, Akin believes in and copiously dramatizes the role of chance and fate in our lives. In fact, Daniel begins his journey to Turkey pursuing not Juli but a guy named Melek, whom he feeds and houses for a night after an encounter on a dark street that's more fortuitous than he realizes at the time.
In the course of In July, our puppy-dog hero becomes a rogue. And how could he not, considering the rowdy Hungarians, slick Slavs and corrupt Romanians he meets along the way of Akin's lively travelogue from Hamburg to Istanbul? But even after fist fights, car thefts and dreamy drug trips, he ends up recovering his purity of essence. So it's possibly the movie's biggest stroke of fate -- or its cagiest joke -- that Daniel is portrayed by Moritz Bleibtreu, a thoroughly charming young German actor whose surname literally means "remain true." In German, with subtitles.