Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Ali and Nino: Transcaucasia Romance

After the fall of the Czar, Azerbaijan’s shining glory years as an independent state only lasted twenty-three months, from 1918 to 1920, before Lenin reconquered the South Caucasian nation. It was very definitely a case of blood for oil—Azerbaijani blood for Soviet oil. They were no match for the Soviet army, but they still did not give up without a fight. Tragedy is therefore the logical end for Azerbaijan’s most celebrated literary lovers, whose story is dramatized for the screen in Asif Kapadia’s English language production, Ali and Nino (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Published under the mysterious pseudonym Kurban Said, the novel Ali and Nino could be considered the Azerbaijani Doctor Zhivago, except in this case Yuri and Lara wed and have a few good years together. These star- and history-crossed lovers are a mixed-religious couple. Nino Kipiani is the Orthodox Christian daughter of Georgian nobleman. Ali Khan Shirvanshir is the somewhat westernized son of wealthy Muslim patriarch. They are in love, but both their fathers are hesitant to consent, for religious reasons—and the initial combustion of WWI gives them both an excuse to forestall a final decision.

Unfortunately, Shirvanshir’s hand is forced when his covetous friend Melik Nachararyan kidnaps Princess Kipiani, in hopes of forcing marriage (and himself) upon her. Shirvanshir upholds his honor with respect to Nachararyan, but he does not merely spare Kipiani. He finally marries her.

For a while, the married couple lives a happy life of hardscrabble seclusion, but the grand events of the early Twentieth Century will interrupt their bliss. Although the Shirvanshir family is reasonably progressive, Kipiani chafes under the restrictive Persian norms when forced to take refuge in Iran. We definitely see a clash of civilizations within the framework of their marriage, even though it is a loving union. However, Kapadia and screenwriter Christopher Hampton certainly suggest Muslim Azerbaijan and Christian Georgia were on good terms during their brief sovereignty, between the misrule of the Czar and the Commissars.

Recently, Kapadia’s work as a documentarian, especially his Oscar winning Amy, has overshadowed his narrative films, but he has a firm handle on the sprawling, cross-cultural canvas of Ali and Nino. He establishes the various sociological and geo-political ins and outs of this rather fraught Transcaucasia region quickly and economically. Production designer Carlos Conti and his art team also craft a lush, classy period look for the film, nicely matched by Dario Marianelli’s sweeping score.

Unfortunately, Adam Bakri is really a cold fish as a leading man. Spanish actress María Valverde fairs better opposite him as the forceful and comparatively independent-thinking (by 1920 standards) Kipiani. Not surprisingly, Mandy Patinkin is believably old world as Prince Kipiani, but Connie Nielsen looks awkwardly out of place as his regal wife. In contrast, the Turkish Halit Ergenç adds an air of commanding authenticity as Fatali Khan Khoyski, independent Azerbaijan’s first Prime Minister.

Despite a weak co-lead, Ali and Nino is an appealingly old fashioned historical, depicting a region and era that have been largely neglected by world cinema. It suggests sources of future macro level déjà vu, without belaboring the point. We just find ourselves wanting it to be more passionately enthralling than it is, a la David Lean's Zhivago. Recommended for fans of exotic epics, Ali and Nino opens this Friday (11/18) in New York, at the IFC Center.