The Precinct -- Film Review

Heaven might wait for the troubled protagonist of this muddled supernatural mystery.

An odd mishmash of romance, supernatural fantasy and gangster melodrama, 'The Precinct' is Azerbaijan’s submission for this year’s foreign language Oscar.

It seems unlikely to reach the final ballot, but the film will receive a limited theatrical release and might even become a minor conversation piece for discerning viewers.  While the writing and acting are clunky, the exotic setting, in a section of the former Soviet Union rarely seen on film, entices.

Garib (Zaza Bejashvili) is a photographer who is offered an assignment in Africa that conflicts with his upcoming wedding plans to Sabina (MelissaPapel). The couple argues about this obstacle to their long-delayed marriage on a trip to the remote cliffs of Gobustan. While they’re squabbling, their car careens out of control. They are rescued from a fiery wreck by a pair of police officers, who take them to the local precinct for questioning. However, when the police chief reveals his knowledge of many intimate details of Garib’s childhood, we realize this is no ordinary police station.

Garib and Sabina seem caught in some otherworldly limbo while Garib is interrogated for sins he committed many years ago. As the film moves into flashbacks to Garib’s childhood experiences with a retarded boy, his beautiful sister, a Jewish photographer and some local hoodlums, we discover the weight of guilt that Garib carries.

The basic conceit of a post-mortem reckoning recalls such diverse works as Heaven Can Wait, Carousel and Sartre’s No Exit. The extensive flashback scenes are done in a realistic style punctuated by a few bizarre appearances of a ghostly figure haunting the caves of Gobustan. It would require considerably more skill than writer-director Ilgar Safatpossesses to bridge these different modes of domestic drama, police procedural and magical realism.

The opening expository scenes are particularly clumsy, and they are not helped by amateurish performances from some supporting players. Once the characters arrive at the police precinct, Vagif Ibrahimoglu as the sinister interrogator does bring a note of compelling menace to the proceedings. Bejashvili as the conflicted photographer has a commanding presence, and as his younger self, Timur Odushev also registers appealingly.  The film becomes more intriguing as it moves toward its melancholy but open-ended conclusion.

Gradually, we realize that the director aims to raise questions about Garib’s mistreatment of women throughout his life.  Is he doomed to damnation, or will he get a second chance to redeem himself?  The ambiguous resolution will probably divide viewers.  However, the cinematography of remote sections of Azerbaijan is haunting, and the eerie musical score by Andrey Doynikov is another asset to this highly uneven production.

Opens: Friday, Dec. 3 (Nariman Film MMC)
Cast:  Zaza Bejashvili, Melissa Papel, Vagif Ibrahimoglu, Timur Odushev, Mammad Safa, Farid Bagirov, Ramis Ibrahimov, Nina Rakova
Director-screenwriter:  Ilgar Safat
Producer:  Nariman Mammadov
Directors of photography:  Konstantin (Mindia) Esadze, Varlam Karchkhadze
Production designer:  Torakhanim Agabayova
Music:  Andrey Doynikov
Costume designer:  Olga Shabanova
Editors:  Levan Kukhashvili, Ilgar Safat
No rating, 120 minutes