Dir. Darezhan Omirbaev. Kazakhstan / France, 2007. 88 Min.
Darezhan Omirbayev's minimalist film takes Tolstoy's Anna Karenina from St. Petersburg and Moscow to Almaty and Astana, and from 1877 to 2007. It is an adaptation that will surprise many by the economy of means applied to one of the most effusive and lavish love stories of all time.
Paring down the massive original to its bare bones, but remaining surprisingly faithful to the basic structure, Omirbayev's present version implies that its viewers have already read Tolstoy and do not need to be retold obvious developments in the story.
Instead they should be made to realise how immortal the tale itself is, including its observations on the state of society at a given moment and the impact it has on the characters.
It usesthe kind of bland, unspectacular photography that would have driven Clarence Brown (who made the 1935 Hollywood version) nuts andfeatures anunknown cast, at least in the West, which deliverssubdued performances.
Omirbayev once again manages to put together a very personal film, which never says more than the essential and allows the audience to fill inthegapsfrom their imagination.
Granted, his cinema has always been an acquired taste for minority audiences, which festivals will pick his film as a matter of course and a small, limited, very specialised distribution is possible as well.
In its modern setting, the plot starts with two men, Albai (Sagatov) and Tleguen (Assaouov), who are both courting a pretty, young student, Altynai (Sapargali).
She prefers the first, a sort of successful businessman cum gangster, the new type of nouveau riche risen out of the ruins of the Soviet Empire.
Tleguen, a photographer who dreams of making films, seems too staid and uninteresting for her.
Chouga (Tourganraeva), Omirbayev's version of Anna, is young girl's aunt, who makes her entrance when she is called urgently to Almaty to make peace between Altynai's two parents.
There she meets Albai, the spark between them is instantaneous, when she goes back home to Astana, he follows, launching an intensive courtship that finally breaks her resistance.
She leaves her husband, a member of the parliament, and her son (in Tolstoy's book, it's a daughter), goes away to live with Albai, in the process also breaking the heart of her niece who attempts suicide.
Once recovered, Altynai will ultimately marry Tleguen and bear his children. Anna goes away with Albai to Paris (which figures also in the Tolstoy novel) for a brief while, but as they gradually grow apart, as they inevitably would after a time, she give in to her longing for her child, goes back home, where she is ruthlessly kicked out of her former home by her husband.
Coming back to Albai proves to be no solution and in desperation she throws herself under a train while the cronies will pursue unperturbed their comments on her behavior.
Spare, angular, unadorned in his approach, Omirbayev announces his intentions early on. In the opening scene Tleguen reads Tolstoy and a few minutes later, when he mentions he would like to make films, he is told that it's about time, we've had enough of Hollywood.
Contemplatively moving ahead at a slow, measured pace, never cornering the actors with his camera and never demanding any demonstrative displays of emotion, he keeps the dialogue down to the bare necessities, trusting the audience understands the rest.
And indeed, the tension between the characters in every scene is based less on acting and more on the way the camera looks at them.
At times, this reticence to show feelings risks being interpreted almost a gaucherie, which isn't necessarily true, for it would be simply out of place here.
His most effusive expression of sentiment comes when Chouga and Ablai hold hands for the first time, and New Year fireworks explode at the same time in the sky, while the crisis is denoted by a series of doors closing between the two lovers.
A few glimpses of Kazakhstan's two main cities show how much that landscape has changed since Omirbayev's earlier films, like 'Kairat'. But more than the look, his concern here is with the new climate reigning there.
On the one hand, as one character observes towards the end, Kazakh society is still shamanistic while on the other hand, it has already acquired the evils of progress.
Chouga's husband hires goons early on to beat up Ablai and scare him off his wife, Ablai's friends later catch the same goons and arbitrarily execute them as a matter of courtesy to one of their kin.
Ainour Tourganraeva, for whom the approach offers only limited thespian options, starts as a handsome, composed, confident woman, who subtly crumbles from inside, without showing too much on the surface, less sure of herself and more despondent with every additional step she takes towards her perdition.
Unlike her, the others do not and are not supposed to change, and as such, underline her performance even more.
Kadam Kazakh Film
Paris Barcelona Films
distribution (at home)
Darezhan Omirbayev based 'Ana Karenina' by Leo Tolstoy