‘Nabat’: Film Review

Courtesy of Biennale di Venezia
Downbeat fairy tale offers some delicate pay-back pleasure

Iranian actress Fatemeh Motamed-Arya portrays a courageous peasant woman during the war in Azerbaijan

A rare art film from Azerbaijan, Nabat tells the simple but affecting story of an elderly peasant woman who selflessly cares for her dying husband in wartime while grieving for her lost son. What makes it extraordinary is the presence of major Iranian actress Fatemeh Motamed-Arya in a performance that echoes her heart-breaking turn as a wounded soldier’s mother in Gilane. Though her role here is less articulated and tragic, it’s tinged with stoic poignancy, well reflected in Elchin Musaoglu’s direction of the story like a leisurely told fairy tale tied to the natural world. There are some obvious holes in the story and it’s not the kind of hot topic that will have distribs lined up, though the Venice, Chicago and Tokyo festivals already have it on their dance card. The slow pace and unfamiliar setting will probably limit its appeal outside the Middle East.

Although the war in the Nagorno-Karabakh is never named in the film, the armed conflict in Azerbaijan (which took place from 1988 until the cease-fire in 1994, and is still diplomatically unresolved) is surely the background war. But like the Iran-Iraq war of Gilane, it is the least important thing, and Musaoglu’s screenplay deliberately keeps shots of uniformed soldiers to a bare minimum. The fighting is all off screen and is the excuse to set a static situation in motion, leaving center stage free for personal drama.

The first part lingers rather tediously over Nabat’s arduous routine in her isolated farmhouse on a mountain top, linked to a tiny village by the proverbial long and winding road. Since their son was sent to the front, Nabat cares for her bed-ridden old husband Iskender (Vidadi Aliyev) and earns a miserly livelihood trudging to the village every morning to sell milk from their one cow. At night the old folks tremble to hear shooting in the distance, and a missile falling near the school sends many families packing. Bound by the ropes of affection to her dying husband and to her son's grave, like the cow to its stake, Nabat can never leave.

The film becomes more intriguing in the second half, when she stumbles down the mountain to find the whole village deserted, food still on the table and laundry on the line. A ghost town, a 'Marie Celeste'. At home she lies to Iskender about everything, including the fact they are effectively all alone.

Playing much older than she is, Motamed-Arya is dignity personified as Nabat, adding on an elderly person’s breathlessness and obsessions. Her fretfulness over a photo of their son, which the town photographer has lost, privileges blunt realism over sentiment until an ironic, touchingly humorous shot later on reveals how she has replaced the missing picture. It's the kind of quiet, unemphatic detail that typifies the director's approach. Nabat's courage and resourcefulness fade to apathy and depression in a downbeat ending which, again typical of the film, foregoes fireworks.  

Deeply rooted in its setting of mountains and country fields, the film is suffused with nature imagery which includes a friendly she-wolf with cubs who seems to watch over Nabat protectively. The idea is presented so matter-of-factly it works. Visually there are things to look at as D.P. Abdulrahim Besharat pours on the atmosphere with fog, rain and snow, sensitively capturing various times of day as the sky changes to brilliant colors. The cellos and violins of Hamed Sabet’s melancholy score reinforce the mood a little too obviously.

Production companies: Azerbaijan Film
Cast: Fatemeh Motamed Arya, Vidadi Aliyev, Sabir Mamadov, Farhad Israfilov
Director-screenwriter: Elchin Musaoglu
Producer: Mushfiq Hatamov
Director of photography: Abdulrahim Besharat
Production designer: Shahin Hasanli
Editor: Babak Shirinsefat
Music: Hamed Sabet
Sales Agent: DreamLab Film

No rating, 105 minutes