'Stranger' ('Zhat'): TIFF Review

Damir Ainikeyev
Rich dramatic potential gets lost in translation

Kazakhstan is shooting for Oscar glory with this western-like fable about a proud outlaw who reverts to nomadic tradition during the dark days of Soviet occupation.

A stirring personal story set against the grand sweep of early 20th century history, Kazakhstan's official contender for the Academy Awards aspires to the physical and emotional dimensions of an old-school epic. World-premiered in Toronto last night, Stranger is part western, part religious allegory and part philosophical fable about the clash between tradition and modernity, individual freedom and mass conformity. It takes place in a gorgeous landscape of snow-capped mountains and sun-drenched valleys, which is one of its key selling points. But it also is sluggish, incoherent and skimpy on explanatory background, which will severely limit its prospects with non-ocal audiences.

Stranger is a pastoral parable with echoes of Akira Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala and Sydney Pollack's Jeremiah Johnson, plus just a teasing hint of Rambo: First Blood. Drawing on Kazakh folklore as well as real characters from his home village, writer-director Yermek Tursunov plots the life story of a proud outsider who stands against a repressive society, with inevitably harsh consequences. Orphaned by the brutal Soviet purges of the 1930s, Ilyas (Yerzhan Nurymbet) withdraws from his village to live as a semi-feral hermit in a mountain cave, communing with animals and mostly shunning human contact. Initially hailed as a spiritually pure outlaw, he later becomes a target of scorn and suspicion, and is vilified as a traitor for refusing to fight in World War II.

Parts of Stranger are confusing, largely because Tursunov under-explains the dramatic context. Historically inhabited by nomadic tribes, Kazakhstan was co-opted into the Russian empire in the 19th century, falling under the Soviet jackboot in the 1920s. Stalinist repression, mass emigration and starvation caused by forced collectivization of farms left millions dead, reducing the native population by almost 40 percent. Moscow also used the republic as a giant prison for dissidents deported from other parts of the Soviet Union, which helps explain some of the baffling minor characters here, notably the mute, alcoholic Caucasian woman (award-winning Russian stage veteran Roza Khairullina) whom Ilyas takes under his protective wing.

But there are deeper flaws in Stranger than mere lack of detail. Ilyas remains a childlike cipher throughout the film, with no apparent social or sexual curiosity, his psychological motivation a blank page. The other characters are thinly rendered heroes and villains, a crude schemata that makes any kind of empathy difficult. Thus the final-act showdown aims for operatic tragedy, but simply falls flat. Cinematographer Murat Aliyev's ravishing landscape shots and Kuat Shildebayev's score, a vivid blend of folk music instrumentation with modern electronics, are the strongest elements in an otherwise creaky and pedestrian production.

Production Company: Tursunov Film
Cast: Yerzhan Nurymbet, Alexander Karpov, Kuandyk Kystykbayev, Elina Abay Kyzy, Roza Khairullina
Director-screenwriter: Yermek Tursunov
Cinematographer: Murat Aliyev
Editor: Galymzhan Sanbayev
Music: Kuat Shildebayev
Producer: Kanat Torebay
Sales company: Tursunov Film
Rated 14A, 105 minutes