Screens at CIFF: 10/11 & 10/12 & 10/22
World premiere: 5 September, 2014, Venice International Film Festival

If you like your stories of life in Islamic ex-Soviet states to be full of long takes with very little dialogue, a very literal concept of the link between the landscape and the people inhabiting it, and proud women whose weathered faces betray no emotion other than grand, world-defying taciturnity, then Nabat sure has a treat for you. If you don’t, you probably don’t watch all that many stories of life in Islamic ex-Soviet states to begin with.

That’s certainly more flippant than Nabat deserves: it is a lovely, minor-key fable about life during wartime with a solid if in some ways generic central performance by Fatemeh Motamed Arya as Nabat herself. The only real issue with it that I can see is that it feels profoundly overfamiliar, and I think even a viewer who has never seen a single film from the broadly-defined Eurasian region that tends to produce movies with similar themes and similar aesthetics to this one probably has picked up enough by osmosis that the things Nabat is up to and does undeniably well have the definite feel of art film clichés. For that’s exactly what they are; and while the film is strong despite them, and director Elchin Musaoglu does his level best to hunt for emotional reality beneath the stock images and concepts, ultimately Nabat is only willing to engage with its concepts down to a certain depth, and it is not a very deep depth. It leaves itself feeling vague and concept-driven, a little too openly eager about making its titular character an emblem of The Women of Azerbaijan In Their Nobility, and these things certainly do leave it feeling a bit puffed-up on artistry without necessarily having much to back it up.

The story is basically thus: Nabat and her husband Iskender (Vidadi Aliyev) live on the outskirts of an already remote village. Here they sell milk to eke out a living; Nabat’s arduous journey into town with her heavy tank full of milk takes up the film’s impressively languid opening shot, with the camera waiting for her to catch up and then following her at a certain distance, wanting to get close to her but also knowing better than the pushily shove itself in her face. It is the first of many ambitious tracking shots that do not call any attention to themselves as showcase gestures of filmmaking awesomeness, but merely look to situated us more comfortably in the setting, establishing the geography of the space, and Nabat’s role in that geography, and ours as well.

But back to that milk. An ongoing war has made life increasingly tough: among other things, it took Nabat and Iskender’s son away from them, and we can perhaps assume that this is part of why their lives have become so hard of late. It also means that the market for their milk is starting to go away, as the villagers abandon their homes for safer quarters. Nabat, however, will not leave: this is her home, the place where her family lies buried, and she is much too old to abandon the earth that has supported her all her life. Her behavior in keeping herself alive and moving forward as the world crumbles around her seems pointedly calculated to encourage the use of adjectives like “steadfast” and “resolute” and “dignified”.

And those words apply, to be sure: Arya’s performance is all strength and firm expressions. And I do mean “all” in the sense of “there’s not much of anything else”. That’s not the actress’s fault; it is the thing required her of a script by Musaoglu and Elkhan Nabiyev that is far more concerned with Nabat’s actions than the inner workings of her mind, and of course there’s nothing wrong with that. Narrative films can be about characters, or about plot, or about concepts and ideas, and Nabat embraces the last of these. How do we live in wartime? it asks - How do we keep a sense of history and continuity when the simplistic cruelty of others works so hard to deprive us of those things? It is a very rewarding treatment of those ideas, too, with the filmmakers’ depiction of the increasingly empty, silent village implacably clocking the degree to which Nabat The Brave and nothing else stands firm and strong in the increasingly desolate landscape. But for a film that starts off by vividly and in totally visual terms expressing an old couple’s loss of their son in war, and ends with an old woman, completely alone, readying herself to die with grace and dignity, Nabat isn’t much for strong emotional resonance. It is a film that takes place mostly in the head - and there’s no problem with that, either, but it’s a tiny bit frustrating, at least.

The film is, as a whole, a very strong version of itself, but I have to call it out for one terrible misstep, and it’s one that unfortunate dominates the last portion of the movie. As everything falls away around her, Nabat comes to realise she has one neighbor left: a wolf, stalking around in the forest, watching and hunting. And not just any wolf - a mother wolf. Symbolism is never my favorite thing, but the kind of groaning, corny symbolism that begins slamming into Nabat from out of nowhere in its final 25 minutes is just plain ridiculous, and it leaves a strong but worryingly indistinct film with a noticeable bad aftertaste.