'Aga': Film Review | Berlin 2018

Cold hands, warm heart.

Bulgarian writer-director Milko Lazarov's sophomore feature brought down the curtain on the 68th Berlinale.

Some films only really work if projected on the biggest screens available, and Milko Lazarov's Berlinale closer, Aga, falls emphatically in that category. A narratively simple story about an elderly Yakut couple living in a yurt amid the frozen expanses of northeastern Siberia, its impact relies very heavily on Kaloyan Bozhilov's majestic widescreen cinematography. One-off engagements in suitably huge spaces — including outdoor venues — could see this Bulgarian-German-French co-production carve a nice little niche beyond the festival circuit.

Following up his 2013 debut, Alienation, which parlayed a prize-winning debut at Venice into a respectable festival run, director/co-writer Lazarov now explicitly engages with one of the most famous and controversial ethnographic films ever made: Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922). Widely described as a landmark in early documentary, Nanook has long been the subject of heated debate over its blending of fiction and nonfiction aspects as it depicts the daily lives of "Eskimos" ("Inuit" is now the preferred term) in the Canadian Arctic.

Aga, however, is more unambiguously fictional, with Mikhail Aprosimov and Feodosia Ivanova playing the long-marrieds. She is named Sedna, for the Inuit sea goddess (and the remote mini-planet that is the coldest known body in our galaxy, aptly enough.) Her husband: Nanook. Seemingly the last remnants of the reindeer-herding tribes that once roamed this barely populated area, the devoted duo now chiefly gets by via icehole-fishing and trapping smaller animals.

Reindeer — glimpsed on the fringes of an old photograph — are now decidedly elusive, very occasionally glimpsed, and there's the sense that ancient ways may well be on the verge of dying out before our eyes. The younger generations have found opportunities elsewhere: The eponymous Aga (Galina Tikhonova), the couple's only child, has gone off to work in a diamond mine. This departure took place under some kind of unspecified dark cloud — Lazarov's screenplay, co-written with Simeon Ventsislavov, doles out information in a very patient and parsimonious manner. Sedna, aware that her health is failing, hankers for a rapprochement; the laconic Nanook is more stubborn. But when events take a tragic turn, he sets off on a long trek to visit his estranged offspring.

Taking his cue from Nanook and Sedna's sedate pace of life, Lazarov spins out his little fable with a calm langour that demands a certain degree of patience from the audience. But there are enough moments of beauty, charm and dry humor along the way to maintain engagement and interest. His deployment of music is particularly effective and imaginative, with tunes (including Mahler's Fifth Symphony) from a crackling old radio providing a plangent backdrop for storytelling and the recounting of dreams.

Composer Penka Kouneva's contributions are low-profile until she really comes into her own in the final act: Long-pent-up emotions come surging forth amid swirlingly lush orchestrations that wouldn't sound out of place in a 1940s melodrama. It's a risky eleventh-hour creative gambit from Lazarov, but pays dividends. Concluding with an awe-inspiring pull-back at the diamond mine that provides a final reminder of Bozhilov's pictorial skills, Aga emerges as a winning combination of the cozily intimate and the sublimely epic.

Production companies: Red Carpet (with 42film, Arizona Productions, ZDF/Arte, BNT)
Cast: Mikhail Aprosimov, Feodosia Ivanova, Sergey Egorov, Galina Tikhonova, Afanasiy Kylaev 
Director: Milko Lazarov
Screenwriter: Milko Lazarov, Simeon Ventsislavov
Producer: Veselka Kiryakova
Executive producers: Eike Goreczka, Christoph Kukula, Guillaume de Seille, Alexander Bohr, Sevda Shishmanova
Cinematographer: Kaloyan Bozhilov
Production designer: Ariunsaichan Dawaachu
Costume designers: Vanina Geleva, Daria Dmitrieva
Editor: Veselka Kiryakova
Composer: Penka Kouneva
Venue: Berlinale (Competition: Out of Competition; Closing Film)
Sales: Beta Film, Munich, Germany
In Sakha (aka Yakut)
No Rating, 96 minutes