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Magical realism has never looked rustier or out of touch with the world than in Waiting for the Sea, a big budget Tajikistan fable about a stubborn, half-mad captain who literally pulls his wrecked ship through the desert after a freak storm turns his fishing village into a sandy wasteland. Lacking the charm of director Bakhtiar Khodoijnazarov’s award-winning Luna Papa, it recalls the 2007 film’s whimsy but is only sporadically engaging, perhaps because there is very little comedy in the hero’s grueling and self-punishing enterprise. Its underlying humanity could pique the fancy of small art house audiences, but as the opening film at the Rome Film Festival, the German-Russian-Belgian-French co-production made in association with Kazakhstan and the Ukraine looked pretty high and dry.
Sergej Ashkenazy’s screenplay opens on an idyllic village where the inhabitants perform primitive rituals to ensure a good fishing season. Awkwardly, there begins to be buzz about bad weather coming, but dapper Capt. Marat (Egor Beroev) pooh-poohs the pessimists and sets off anyway with his crew and his young wife Dari (model Anastasia Mikulchina, making her film debut), who is full of misgivings. No disaster could be more telegraphed than this one and, sure enough, the little boat sails right into the perfect storm, whose brevity and minimal special effects are a disappointing missed opportunity for some thrilling screen time. Only many scenes later is it clear that the sand deposited by the storm has completely wiped out the town’s access to the sea.
“Some time later,” Marat returns to the village by train, after serving a prison sentence. As the sole survivor on the boat, he is held responsible by the villagers for the loss of their loved ones, though it is very hard to understand why they don’t blame the natural disaster that destroyed their entire way of life. The sea is now so far away that nobody seems to know exactly where it is, but that doesn’t stop the determined captain from hitching his beached boat to an unlikely system of pulleys and starting off, inch by inch, towards a watery berth.
Like Werner Herzog’s surreal Fitzcarraldo, which had a steamer being pulled through the Peruvian jungle, Khodoijnazarov makes the most of the bizarre image of a rusty hulk sailing through the Central Asian sands while camels and wild horses look on. Here the idea is stretched to the breaking point, however, and only the extraordinary visuals of the natural landscape with its stirring, Monument Valley-type rock formations keeps interest alive. Other borrowings include a Mad Max-style tribe of desert marauders on motorbikes and jacked-up cars and a salute to Jean Vigo’s romantic classic L’Atalante, which seems to have inspired Marat’s handsome seadog look.
As the one-track captain, Moscow stage actor Beroev plays the role with great physicality, wild abandon and an heroic disregard for obstacles. One of these is his wife’s younger sister Tamara (also played by Mikulchina with modern chutzpah), who has grown up with an obsession for Marat and, now that Dari is out of the picture, is determined to have him. She seduces him with a ruse, but he gruffly repulses any further contact because he’s convinced “the sea doesn’t kill” and he’ll one day find Dari. Just as kooky as he is, Tamara won’t take no for an answer. Detlev Buck as the town’s useless air traffic controller and preserver of its historical memory and Dinmukhamet Akhimov as Tamara and Dari’s grief-stricken father add strong support in smaller roles.
The tale does have a nice ending, though again telegraphed so early on that it will come as a surprise to no one, and once more underwhelming in the special effects department.
Venue: Rome Film Festival (out of competition), Nov. 9, 2012
Production companies: Pallas Film (Germany), VISS (Russia), Entre Chien Et Loup (Belgium), Silkroad Productions (France) in association with Cinema Project Group-Lanabond (Ukraine), National Production Center – Baytarek (Kazakhstan), Kinolitpros (Russia.)
Cast: Egor Beroev, Anastasia Mikulchina, Detlev Buck, Dinmukhamet Akhimov, Radzhab-Ali Suseynov, Pavel Priluchnyi, Daulet Kekelbayev, Alexander Rabotyaga
Director: Bakhtiar Khodoijnazarov
Screenwriter: Sergej Ashkenazy
Producers: Thanassis Karathanos, Karl Baumgartner, Bakhtiar Khodoijnazarov, Rusht Rusthov, Sebastien Delloye, Diana Elbaum, Behrooz Hashemian, Setareh Farsi
Directors of photography: Jan Vancaillie, Dusan Joksimovic
Production designers: Nigmat Djuraev, Agi Dawaachu
Music: Shuhei Kamimura
Costume designers: Zebo Nastrova, Nina Dobrina
Editors: Salome Machatdze, Danielius Kokanauskts
Sales: The Match Factory
No rating, 109 minutes.
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