'Centaur': Film Review | Berlin 2017

Courtesy of Berlinale
Aktan Arym Kubat in 'Centaur'
A universal story in a distinctly different cultural setting.

A film projectionist-turned-horse thief contends with religious and economic forces tearing at his village in Kyrgyz auteur Aktan Arym Kubat's sixth feature.

Seven years after his international breakthrough with The Light Thief, Aktan Arym Kubat has returned with "The Horse Thief." Or that's at least what Centaur could have been titled, since the Kyrgyz filmmaker's sixth feature revolves around a man given to riding across wide open steppes on thoroughbreds taken from stables across town.

The stealing aside, other similarities abound between Kubat's latest outing and The Light Thief. Just like the electrician from the 2010 film who tweaks power lines to give electricity to the poor, Centaur's protagonist steals from the corrupt rich, which he considers to be an act of upholding social justice. Both films defy nationalistic odds by refusing to depict their characters' struggles as a simple binary between good tradition and bad modernity. They also share key merits evident throughout Kubat's career, not only in their technical excellence but also their ability to capture a distinct pastoral beauty that rarely veers into clichéd cultural exotica.

Featuring yet another measured onscreen performance from the director himself — he also played the lead in The Light ThiefCentaur is an engaging tale about an individual's struggle against his own impulses, and also his efforts to contend with the historical, religious and social forces tearing at him and his community.

After receiving its world premiere (and a CICAE Art Cinema prize) in Berlin, Centaur should gallop away with more bookings and possibly awards on the festival trail throughout 2017. However, this is a more opaque allegory than Kubat's previous films, meaning it will have to clear a few high hurdles in order to outdo The Light Thief's exposure — the 2010 film remains the Kyrgyz auteur's most widely distributed title to date, with runs in British and French cinemas and DVD releases on both sides of the Atlantic.

The new film begins with its protagonist, Centaur (Kubat), deftly stealing into a local stable and riding into the night on one of its most pedigreed racehorses. But he's not keeping the animal with an eye toward selling it later; the unharmed horse is soon recovered, loosely roped to a pole in the village, while Centaur is already back at home enjoying some family time with his mute wife (Zarema Asanalieva) and young son (Nuraly Tursunkojoev).

His aim is to allow horses at least a brief chance to realize their potential in the open before they are again returned to their doomed status as tradable commodities among cynical entrepreneurs. Centaur's secret endeavors become more complicated as he finds himself nicking horses from Karabay (Bolot Tentimyshov), a recently returned parvenu who was once Centaur's blood brother.

As the pair square off, the viewer learns of Centaur's feelings about how human greed — embodied by Karabay — has destroyed a society where people used to be "strong and united as a fist." He views the fact that horses — long seen as "wings of men" in Kyrgyz mythology — are now bought and sold like any other commodity as a symbol of humanity's fall from grace.

But Centaur isn't merely a liberal, nationalist tale with a folk hero calling for a return to a simple past. The protagonist himself, for example, is an epitome of mixed cultures. His wife is Russian; he worked as a film projectionist before the village cinema closed down; and he views the surge of religious fervor in his community with suspicion and dismay, seeing the imams' controlling attitudes as in line with those of the businessmen who come in promising a better world.

Nor is he a flawless hero. Mostly appearing as a quiet, unassuming man — he's called Centaur because people have long forgotten his real name, after taunting him for years for his love of horses — the protagonist also struggles with his feelings for street vendor Sharapat (Taalakian Abazova), a flirtation that seemingly runs against his moral ideals. Then again, that's probably the complicated world Kubat wants to bring to the screen, defying a simplicity which some of his peers — or maybe even his younger self — might have deployed to portray their own so-called Third World societies.

Apart from starting with a Kyrgyz proverb, the film makes scant mention of its real geographical and political settings. Kubat — who is also known under his more Russified surname of Abdykalykov — delivers a universal story with distinctive visual characteristics, made with absolute technical mastery.

Production companies: Oy Art, A.S.A.P. Films, Pallas Film, Volya Films
Cast: Aktan Arym Kubat, Zarema Asanalieva, Taalaikan Abazova, Bolot Tentimyshov
Director: Aktan Arym Kubat
Screenwriters: Aktan Arym Kubat, Ernest Abdyjaparov
Producers: Altynai Koichumanova, Cedomir Kolar, Thanassis Karathanos, Marc Baschet, Denis Vaslin
Director of photography: Khassan Kydyraliev
Production designer: Adis Seitaliev
Costume designer: Inara Abdieva
Editor: Petar Markovic
Music: Andre Matthias
Casting: Nurbek Musayev
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Sales: The Match Factory

In Kyrgyz
89 minutes