White Nights under Kazakh Skies

in 10th Eurasia International Film Festival Almaty

by Andrea Martini

Forty year-old Nariman Turebayev has nothing to fear from a comparison of his work to that of the previous generation of Kazakh directors, such as Darejan Omirbaev, Serik Aprymov, and Amir Karakulov — that much is clear. His earliest full-length feature films, Little Men (Malen’kie liudi, 2003) — a subtle, tragicomic portrayal of two friends who, despite holding diametrically opposite views on existence, live under the same roof and share dreams and the absence of a steady job; and Sunny Days (Solnechnye dni, 2011) — five days in the life of a twenty-five year-old, feverishly trying to put together a sum of money — these films bore witness to his expressive boldness and extraordinary sensitivity. His own, personal style had already emerged, with long and airy sequences, the dialogue pared down to bare essentials, and eloquent visual meticulousness portraying a synthesis of daily life and hidden states of mind.

All these elements are present in his latest work, Adventure (Prikliuchenie, 2014), a film with an even more rarefied visual setting despite the intense imagery charged with meaning. The city of Almaty (the setting for his earlier films), sun-kissed and far from the winter freeze, is the stage of a nocturnal drama only marginally lit up by hues of a subtle irony that emerges at the beginning and the end of the event. “Nothing else would have happened”, says the voice of Marat, the protagonist, off camera in the opening scene, in a perfect idiom of the literary source from which the film draws its inspiration. Marat is a young security guard and quite fearless night watchman in a public building. He leaves his work in the morning, just as the clerks turn up for their work. A withdrawn loner, whose timidity is more the result of other people’s lack of interest than his own inclination, Marat’s life is boringly repetitive, enlivened only by fried eggs and tea, or going to and coming home from work by bus or on foot.

One night, while gazing out of the window during his shift, he notices a young woman standing by a lamppost as though she were waiting for someone. As he watches the following evening, a drunkard attacks her, so he goes down to defend her. He discovers that her name is Maryam and that she is waiting at that very place to be reunited with her lover after a long separation. The two continue to meet over the next few days, and soon their relationship becomes more consistent, but then just as a glimmer of hope is about to give meaning to Marat’s life, his dream is shattered by a harsh reality.

Just a few minutes into the screening, the viewer with a modicum of familiarity with literature will realise that Turebayev’s narrative has the same framework as one of the 19th century’s most famous works, Feodor Dostoyevsky’s White Nights. Indeed, it was Dostoyevsky himself who described the work as a “small sentimental novel”, hinting at how the fabric of the tale could be opened up even further. Indeed, cinema can only survive on this kind of work by giving it new meaning and, let there be no mistake, Nariman Turebayev has succeeded brilliantly, in no way fearful of such a meaningful text that so uniquely gives body to the anguish of the protagonist.

Adventure is set in the present day, in a city where gardens and parks with trees just manage to keep the bulky oppressiveness of Soviet architecture at arm’s length. Far, far away from the elegant St. Petersburg with its houses that Dostoyevsky’s hero talks so fondly to. Unlike Nasten’ka, Maryam’s unhappiness is of the present day and the apparent callousness with which Dostoyevsky’s heroine banishes the dreamer back into the dark, the dreary routine of the film orients the plot towards the perilous manipulation that Marat obviously falls victim to. The humble watchman, whose time-space is punctuated by work (which Maryam invites him to abandon once in order to follow her) cannot avoid being seduced by a woman who is provocation incarnate. Maryam forces Marat to ask a stranger to dance with her; she manoeuvres him into a wood to mortify Marat only to summon him to save her from the inevitable advances. Episodes that repeat themselves, couched alternately in short-lived tenderness and open derision and, when Marat ingenuously proposes as she rests her head on his chest, openly mocking, the parallel alternation, extreme and crude, to which Nasten’ka resorts on the pages of Dostoyevsky.

Despite the repetition of the five-night cycle, the configuration of the film’s narrative is more spiral and thus ideal to depict the obsession that grips Marat’s feelings from the outset. I don’t know whether Turebayev viewed and analysed earlier versions of Dostoyevsky’s novel. White Nights (Le notti bianche, 1957), Luchino Visconti’s film of the same name and one of his less fortunate efforts, is a mere theatrical transposition of Dostoyevsky’s novel, where the cast find themselves in a set of useless clutter enveloped in permanent fog. What should have been a highly emotive performance by Marcello Mastroianni and Maria Schell, was sterilized by the quest for hair-splitting precision. By contrast, in Four Nights of a Dreamer (Quatre nuits d’un rêveur, 1971), Robert Bresson produced an artificial modernization, couching the story in the imagery of ’68 and, while never losing his subtlety of stroke, Dostoyevsky — to whom he had just turned for his much more convincing A Gentle Woman (Une femme douce, 1969) — is merely the means for conducting an exercise in style for containing Four Nights of a Dreamer. It was not until much later, with James Gray’s Two Lovers (2008), that a true depiction of the authentic tragedy familiar to literary aficionados was screened which, with its digressions and embellishments, still failed to conceal the source.

By contrast to previous works, Turebayev here takes his own poetics and personal cinema script as starting point, and not the literary work; on these premises he builds the bare bones of the plot, not remote from the spirit of the narrative. Marat’s everyday gestures — such as boiling water to make tea, frying eggs, polishing his shoes, putting on his facemask, getting dressed in his uniform, exchanging greetings with his colleague, listening without comment to the chatter of the lady behind the bar — are the canvas on which the events that follow his encounter with Maryam are played out. With her, life is a surprise per second, every gesture is the opposite of the one that went before; she is provocation in person and her truths are never solitary. Turebayev takes cinema to its simplest form to present a sort of psychoanalysis of the text, a necessary premise for the emergence of the subconscious and hidden reality that is played out behind the characters. This is possible thanks to Ainur Niyazova, a young actress of quite astounding intensity, whose luminescence is fundamental to the project, and to Azamat Nigmanov, whose performance is never repetitive — despite the part.

Eighty-seven minutes of pure cinema, radical in its rigour: an absolute must to see and recommend. A Kazakh film, which, though co-produced by France, faces an uphill struggle to commercial success, which critics could help to ease.

Edited by Birgit Beumers