The dusty steppes of economically depressed, physically ravaged post-Soviet Kazakhstan in the mid 1990s are no place to be a teenager in The Wounded Angel. After winning the Silver Bear in 2013 with his striking debut feature, Harmony Lessons, writer-director Emir Baigazin returns to Berlin with another melancholy portrait of corrupted youth. The four thematically linked stories don’t quite measure up to the poetic impact of the more cohesive earlier work, but the drama is transfixing even when it’s perplexing, every frame a composition of austere beauty.
Working this time with Belgian cinematographer Yves Cape (who shot Leos Carax’s gloriously nuts cine-reverie, Holy Motors), Baigazin has developed into an even more assured visual stylist. Camera movement is minimal, with action predominantly playing out within static shots. The framing shows an attention to detail and understanding of the descriptive power of spatial dynamics worthy of Douglas Sirk. Characters are constantly observed either through or against doorways and windows, in mirrors or along corridors, at other times shot from behind or captured in simple, eloquent close-ups. The gaze is detached, unblinking, bereft.
The settings are villages of humble stucco-walled, sparsely decorated houses surrounded by parched grassland and abandoned industry. The resources of the land have been sucked dry, and the shells of factories look like bomb sites. One amazing shot of a boy sitting on a rusted tangle of sheet metal looks like something Frank Gehry might have designed out of found materials. The idea of being exiled into darkness is enhanced by the government’s economic measure of shutting off electricity every night at 9 p.m., creating a kind of candlelit curfew.
The movie’s four sections are built around themes of morality, sin and punishment, with chapters punctuated by details from Finnish symbolist painter Hugo Simberg’s frescoes in Tampere Cathedral. The film’s title comes from one of Simberg’s best-known paintings, an image amusingly recreated by two glue-sniffers carrying a physically and mentally handicapped orphan on a makeshift sedan chair. One of them (Timur Aidarbekov, from Harmony Lessons) gives a rapturous account of a paradise where the wounded angel fell from the sky.
Each section revolves around a different boy. Resentful when his father returns from prison, carrying the shame of a convicted thief, Zharas (Nurlybek Saktaganov) hauls sacks of flour for a local merchant to provide for his family. But just as the damaged father-son relationship begins to heal and prospects improve, the boy makes a misstep that will cost him. Another boy, nicknamed Toad (Madiyar Aripbay), has the voice of an angel and is preparing to sing in a contest. He does his best to avoid being drawn into the violence and racketeering of the school bullies. But when a lingering cough compromises his vocals, his anger surfaces.
Zhaba (Madiyar Nazarov) scavenges for scrap metal from factories and sewer tunnels to sell for cash. He’s a sullen, withdrawn type, but there’s still a trace of the child in him, revealed in his wish for a birthday cake with candles. But his strange encounter with the Beckettian “wounded angel” trio living underground only cements his isolation and his cold self-preservation.
Perhaps the most tragic of the four boys, in conventional Western narrative terms, is Aslan (Omar Adilov, also from Harmony Lessons), a gifted student planning to study medicine. When his girlfriend (Anzara Barlykova) gets pregnant, he assists her in an abortion, the aftershock of it sending him slowly mad. Baigazin can get a little ponderous with the symbolism, and Aslan’s sudden block with the compulsory biology strand of his course is a notable example. But as the boy becomes obsessed with the notion that a tree is growing inside him that must be watered and allowed space to breathe, this thread yields one of the film’s most memorably surreal images.
In each story, parents — or just mothers, in all but one case — stand by and watch helplessly as their sons drift away from them, their efforts to communicate or intervene falling on deaf ears. But as much as it’s a portrait of lost youth, the film feels like an elegy for the shattered soul of humanity in a broader sense. And while the stories overlap only in minor ways, a final scene places the four boys together to haunting effect.
As in his first film, Baigazin’s work is exemplary in terms of his ability to get performances of quiet, unsettlingly focused intensity from his nonprofessional actors, revealing not so much as a flicker of self-consciousness. With their dark Asian eyes and stern demeanors, the boys’ faces are extraordinarily expressive.
Aside from Toad’s vocal renditions of “Ave Maria” and a mournful Kazakh anthem, no music is used. While the slow-paced storytelling (Baigazin also edited) is often not as accessible as it could be, the rigor of the visual aesthetic and tonal command holds your attention. Harmony Lessons logged a lot of miles on the international festival circuit, and this more challenging but still rewarding follow-up should do the same.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama Special)
Production companies: Kazakhfilm, Capricci Production, Augenschein Filmproduktion
Cast: Nurlybek Saktaganov, Madiyar Aripbay, Madiyar Nazarov, Omar Adilov, Anzara Barlykova, Timur Aidarbekov, Kanagat Taskaraev, Rasul Vilyamov
Director-screenwriter: Emir Baigazin
Producers: Anna Vilgelmi, Beibit Muslimov
Director of photography: Yves Cape
Production designer: Sergey Kopylov
Costume designer: Kamilla Kurmanbekova
Editor: Emir Baigazin
Casting: Damir Tanatov
Sales: Capricci Films
Not rated, 112 minutes.