'The Road to Mother': Film Review

Courtesy of Satai Film
'The Road to Mother'
A handsome but overly long and winding road.

The 12th submission to the Academy Awards from Kazakhstan is a historical drama tracing that country's political changes and hardships during the 20th century.

Telling a nation's modern story through the biography of a fictional character, The Road to Mother aims for epic sweep. It works mainly in fits and starts, though there's no question that the movie's depiction of the effects of Soviet rule on a nomadic population will be eye-opening for many Western viewers, and deeply resonant for Kazakhstanis.

Director Akan Satayev and screenwriter Timur Zhaksylykov, who previously collaborated on the wan English-language crime thriller Hacker, tap into something far more compelling here, but the two-dimensionality of most of the characters, however well played, limits the film's dramatic impact.

The visually fluent independent feature takes too long to set up the saga of its protagonist, Ilyas (Adil Akhmetov), born in 1922 on the Central Asian steppes. The first sign of the laborious approach is the capsule history lesson that opens the drama, and bears the stamp of a film commissioned by the Ministry of Culture (executive producer Aliya Nazarbaeva is the daughter of Kazakhstan's president). Threaded through the film, though, are moments both affecting and illuminating that suggest the power of a tighter, more elliptical telling.

As the Soviets upend a region's nomadic traditions with their mandates of permanent settlements and collective farming, Ilyas' village is split between those who welcome the promise of progress — his father among them — and those who reject the new rulers. Amid the violent dispute, the boy is separated from his mother, and the story that unfolds, through war and famine and modernization, is the repeatedly frustrated struggle of Ilyas to reunite with his mother, Mariam (Altynai Nogerbek), and his childhood friend Oumit (Aruzhan Jazilbekova), who has become Mariam's adopted daughter.

The missed connections and twists of fate that keep them apart — and give screenwriter Zhaksylykov time to cover more chapters in Kazakhstan's history — are intensified by party-line politics. Absurdly, and even when he's a soldier serving on the Ukrainian front, Ilyas has been branded an "enemy of the people," causing both him and his mother to alter their names to avoid further targeting, and in the process making their mutual search more difficult.

In the screenplay's simplified perspective, the central characters are unwaveringly selfless and pure, the baddies unequivocally bad — notably the childhood bully who becomes a Communist Party functionary and sexual abuser. But Satayev also finds eloquent visual shorthand for complex ideas, as in Mariam's reactions to a succession of blank, soulless housing options that replace the yurt where her son was born.

Shooting in Kazakhstan, Belarus and Azerbaijan, Satayev and cinematographer Khassan Kydyraliev use the widescreen frame expressively, contrasting those forward-looking interiors with the timeless stretch of the landscape. Over the film's distended running time, full color seeps very gradually into the desaturated imagery. There's a classical precision to the compositions that often enhances their emotional content, whether in Ilyas' interactions with a sympathetic orphanage director or the roadside vigil of Mariam, who is certain that her son will return.

Compared with those emotions, the feature's final, patriotic notes are anticlimactic. Yet it's the history lesson that lingers more than the story of Ilyas and Mariam. However overlong this Road may be, it manages to connect its proud contemporary glimpses of a cosmopolitan, multicultural nation with the suffering and losses of devastating past decades. Kazakhstan became a welcoming home to Soviet citizens of a broad range of nationalities and ethnicities: It's where Stalin deported many of those he deemed enemies of the regime.

Production companies: Kazakhfilm Studios, Sataifilm
Cast: Altynai Nogerbek, Aruzhan Jazilbekova, Adil Akhmetov, Berik Aitzhanov, Bolat Abdil'manov, Azamat Satybaldy, Erlan Karibaev, Andrei Dushechkin, Yerkebulan Dairov
Director: Akan Satayev
Screenwriter: Timur Zhaksylykov
Producers: Svetlana Korotenko, Anna Chakirtova, Aliya Mendygozhina
Executive producer: Aliya Nazarbaeva
Director of photography: Khassan Kydyraliev
Production designers: Nazira Baibekova, Larisa Reshetova, Assel Shalabaeva
Composers: Alim Zairov, Roman Vishnevskiy

In Kazakh and Russian
130 minutes