'Ali & Nino': Sundance Review

Ali & Nino still - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Romeo and Juliet in Baku.

In stark contrast to director Asif Kapadia’s most recent documentary 'Amy,' this feature feels like something from MGM's 1930s release schedule or an offspring of 'Doctor Zhivago' fifty years ago.

A star-crossed love story set against the backdrop of World War I and the doomed independence movement in Azerbaijan makes for a distinctively flavored but staggeringly old-fashioned epic romantic drama in Ali & Nino. In stark contrast to director Asif Kapadia’s most recent work, the ultra-contemporary documentary Amy, the director’s fourth dramatic feature feels like something from MGM’s 1936 release schedule or an offspring of Doctor Zhivago fifty years ago. In other words, this attempt to spotlight a significant historical event unknown to most Westerners could not seem more out of step with modern tastes, nor do the central characters and actors light the necessary fire. But the film could do well in former Eastern bloc countries, where its anti-Russian content would be well received.

The doomed lovers here (there is never any doubt as to their tragic destinies) are a dashing but thoroughly modern Muslim fellow from the richest family in Baku, Azerbaijan, and a young Christian lady. “Her lips are too thin, like all Georgians,” observes Ali’s traditionalist father, as the Capulet and Montaguedynamics settle in, and it’s no surprise to learn that the 1930s novel on which the film is based is a local, much-translated classic that’s considered the Romeo and Juliet of Azerbaijan (the credited novelist, Kurban Said, is a pseudonym, the writer’s real identity remaining uncertain).

As the beginning of the Great War approaches, some of Ali’s boisterously macho colleagues can’t wait to put on a uniform, even if the prevailing view is that the Caucasus, which provide more than fifty per cent of the world’s oil, should not play favorites or get involved; local oil men do business with both sides in the looming conflict and will stand to benefit from the wartime need for crude. Ali (Adam Bakri) entirely agrees, and a great deal of the dialogue in the script by the redoubtable Christopher Hampton is devoted to detailed exposition about the geo-political and economic situation of the moment.

As depicted here, upper class locals have taken on Western ways in many respects but have retained traditional local views, manners and, to be sure, religious affiliations. One of the old-time customs is that, if you’re able to kidnap another man’s woman, you’re entitled to marry her, which is what Ali’s swaggering pal Malik tries to do with Nino (Spanish actress Maria Valverde). But the dashing Ali chases them down on horseback and kills the presumptuous brigand to get back his woman, whom he then takes to the Daghestan mountains to wed.

When the war presses in on Baku, the pregnant Nino is sent to Tehran, where she lives a cloistered life with her own personal eunuch. Meanwhile, Ali jumps head-first into the independence movement and, after war’s end, takes up arms against the invading Bolsheviks, who are determined to wrestle back the oil fields.

The yarn possess all the trappings of an old-fashioned, full-bodied historical melodrama: It’s got the yearning, beautiful, privileged lovers straining against traditional rules to be together; the war-torn backdrop, the main function of which is to keep the lovers apart, the end of rigid old ways and the beginning of something new, which no one can be sure will be any better.

A grand tragic romance must be founded upon compelling lovers to root for and, alas, this is what is decisively missing here, along with the actors to portray them. Bakri, who starred in the Oscar-nominated Palestinian film Omar three years ago, has the requisite chiseled look and speaks English very nicely, but lacks the needed chemistry with Valverde, who just goes through the motions of a young woman in love and doesn’t throw off any sparks. These are roles that needed radiant leads and the film is sunk without them.

The one compensating factor lies in the locations, which provide a look at a vanished world and significant geographic areas rarely seen so comprehensively in Western cinema. The locations in and around Baku are dense with atmosphere, while shots of oil well forests in the surrounding area make it look like Texas in old boom times. Similarly, the wastelands and mountains resemble vistas in countless American Westerns, but with their own distinctive look (some location work was also done in Turkey). Cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki, production designer Carlos Conti and costume designer Michele Clapton have more than held up their end.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Production: Peapie Films

Cast: Adam Bakri, Maria Valverde, Riccardo Scamarcio, Homayoun Ershadi, Halit Ergenc, Assad Bouab, Numan Acar, Ekin Koc, Connie Nielsen, Mandy Patinkin

Director: Asif Kapadia

Screenwriter: Christopher Hampton, based on the book Ali & Nino by Kurban Said

Producer: Kris Thykiev

Executive producers: Leyla Aliyeva, Mairi Bett

Director of photography: Gokhan Tiryaki

Production designer: Carlos Conti

Costume designer: Michelle Clapton

Editor: Alexander Berner

Music: Dario Marianelli

Casting: Shaheen Baig

101 minutes