'In Between Dying' ('Sepelenmis Olumler Arasinda'): Film Review | Venice 2020

Between Dying
Venice Film Festival
A parable that grows tedious.

A youth who has killed a man escapes across a mountainous area of Azerbaijan in filmmaker Hilal Baydarov’s heavily symbolic first feature, coproduced by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas.

Inching forward on a rocky if deeply felt cinematic path that has rarely strayed far from reflections on himself and his mother, Azerbaijan filmmaker Hilal Baydarov opens up his vistas, somewhat, in the fiction feature In Between Dying (Sepelenmis Olumler Arasinda). It’s beautiful to look at, but the story of a young man on the run who encounters death at every turn of the winding road doesn’t really make much sense even in metaphorical terms.

The Azerbaijan-Mexican coprod (filmmaker Carlos Reygadas is one of the producers) will have to fight to find space outside festivals, even after its bow in Venice competition.

Baydarov has grown a small following for his series of documentaries whose theme is pondering his own life and memories. In the last two years he has written, directed and produced three docs — Mother and Son, Birthday and Where the Persimmons Grow — all revolving around his relationship with his mother, played by Maryam Naghiyeva.

Nor is the current film ready to let her go. It opens and closes with Naghiyeva lying pitifully on a couch, begging her grown son Davud (a coolly morose Orkhan Iskandarli) to go out and get her medicine, or she’ll die. Without any explanation, the boy yells at her a bit and storms off on his own business.

It’s hard to say what that is, unless he’s serious about his off-screen poetic musing: “I have to leave home to find the wife and son whose faces I’ve never seen.” But first he picks up a girlfriend on his motorbike and they set off to look for some weed. This quickly leads to a clash with a drug lord called the Doctor, during which Davud pulls out a gun and shoots his henchman. He makes a dash for it with three of the Doctor’s minions in pursuit.

The symbolic nature of the chase is clear early on. As though acting out a folk tale, Davud has a series of strange encounters with women. Each one ends with someone dying and Davud leaving the scene just seconds before Doc’s men arrive. They then phone the boss and report on him. Are they angels or devils? The hero seems contemptuous of them, and if they're supposed to be some sort of comic/cosmic relief to perk up the downer story, they aren’t funny.

The first person he meets is a girl (Kubra Shukurova) who’s been chained up in a barn for five years. She informs him she’s been bitten by a rabid dog. When her father comes and tries to grab Davud, she fatally bites the older man.

Next Davud stops by the roadside to ask for a drink of water from a woman (Narmin Hasanova) sitting under a tree. She tells him she doesn’t want to go home because her husband is drunk and will beat her. Enter the husband. When he violently tries to drag her off, she hits him with a rock.

By now Davud and his pursuers are convinced he’s a jinx, bringing death in his wake wherever he goes. The question is whether this is good or bad. The Doctor seems to view Davud as a prophet who appears to release people from their bodies. As the young man reflects, to no one in particular, “I rub blood on my face so you remain pure.”

Perhaps he says this to his unborn son. There are several shots of a heavily veiled woman in black in the background holding a baby, with an unbridled horse staring into the camera nearby. Are these mental images of his search, or just more navel-gazing? One wonders if the untranslated titles that occasionally appear on screen offer any enlightenment.

When Davud picks up a young woman in a wedding dress (Rana Asgarova) who is running away from marriage to a man she doesn’t love, it’s only a matter of time before violence ends the episode. His final encounter is with the black-veiled woman herself and it is equally enigmatic.

Writer-director-producer-editor Baydarov studied with Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr at the Sarajevo Film Academy, and In Between Dying resonates with filmic influences at the expense of original expression. The hero’s brief, lethal encounters take place in an extremely poetic landscape of mountain roads shot like the dream of a Kiarostami film. But the cinematography by Eishan Abbasov is gloriously expressive and well-paired with Kanan Rustamli’s soaring music.   

Production companies: Ucqar Film, Splendor Omnia Studios, Louverture Films
Cast: Orkhan Iskandarli, Rana Asgarova, Huseyn Nasirov, Maryam Naghiyeva, Kubra Shukurova, Narmin Hasanova, Kamran Huseynov, Samir Abbasov
Director, screenwriter, editor: Hilal Baydarov
Producers: Hilal Baydarov, Eishan Abbasov, Carlos Reygadas, Joslyn Barnes
Executive producers: Danny Glover, Susan Rockefeller
Director of photography: Eishan Abbasov
Music: Kanan Rustamli
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: Pluto Film
92 minutes