April 4, 2013
Tengri – Kyrgyzstan, 2008
In today’s fast-paced, connected world, there is often a tendency to romanticize simplicity and to portray undeveloped lands as being where true happiness and tranquility are possible. It is a sentiment that I completely understand, and at first glance, actor-director Marie-Jaoul de Poncheville’s film Tengri seems to be set in such a place. Located high in the majestic Kyrghyz Mountains, surrounded by grassy fields and immaculately blue lakes, it is one of those places that instantly takes your breathe away, and for a moment, I can easily imagine viewers allowing themselves to believe that life in this outwardly modern-day Eden must be absolutely idyllic. It is a notion that the film puts to bed rather quickly. After all, women in paradise don’t sing about their desire for their husbands to leave the world as soon as possible.
Early on in the film, a young man named Temur makes his way to a jailoo (a small community) high up in the mountains. He is looking for his father. After learning that he “left the world a long time ago,” Temur is allowed to settle down there, but not before being asked a number of fairly reasonable questions, such as whom he is running from and whether he has killed anyone. His welcome is punctuated by the approach of a beautiful young woman holding a cup of milk in her hand. He drinks a little of it, and then she drinks the rest before letting out a loud, peculiar sound that seemed both flirtatious and boastful, almost as if she were establishing herself as his equal. It is the start of a rather amazing love story.
The village is a mixture of generations, from the village elders to their children and finally to their grandchildren. The elders seem to know the rules and accept them even as they look at their children somewhat disapprovingly. Their children have continued many of their parents’ traditions and may in fact have expanded on them. This middle generation also shows signs of wanting more and not being able to accept their inability to get it. Some in the village have turned to alcohol to escape; one villager in particular has turned to religion and war. Both decisions enable distance and violence to enter into the community. The youngest of the villagers are caught between two worlds, for modernity, in the form of the internet and the social interaction it often brings with it, is rapidly approaching. In one scene, one of the children explains that his school will soon have internet access, and from the sound of his voice, we can sense how excited he is about this. Another child displays the same disdain for women as his father, and it is shocking to see what little regard he has for his own mother.
There are other moments in Tengri of quiet astonishment – a traveling circus in the middle of nowhere, the amazing view of a spot where a patch of barren earth becomes a snow-covered mountain, a heart-wrenching revelation involving family tragedy, and glances so tender that words are unnecessary. From them, we can see exactly how Temur and Amira feel about each other. The problem of course is that they are not supposed to be together, and the film’s final act shows their daring attempt to achieve happiness. Events such as these, one’s in which characters begin acting heroically on the turn of a dime, are not always believable, but screenwriters Marie-Jaoul de Poncheville, Jean-Francois Goyet, and Azamat Kadyraliev have created characters that do not suddenly discover their valiant nature. They have always had it; it just took finding each other to bring it out fully.
Tengri has a strong cast, and it is hard to believe that Albina Imasheva (Amira) and Elim Kalmouratov (Temur) do not have long lists of credits to their names. If the film has a fault, it is that a few of its scenes seem forced, as if the film were desperate to find ways to produce just a little more drama. These moments are easy to spot, for the conflicts they contain are resolved rather awkwardly and they often involve behavior that seems more eccentric than realistic. I also felt the film’s final act had a small but noticeable pacing problem. However, these are minor quibbles about an otherwise excellent film. Tengri is a stark reminder that violence and sorrow can exist everywhere. However, it is also a reminder that, as a key character puts it, it is possible to write a different song than the one that fate seems to have selected for you. It is an important message in these sometimes trying times. (on DVD in Region 3)
3 and a half stars
*Tengri is in Russian and Kirghiz with English subtitles.
*It was Kyrgyzstan’s official submission for Oscar consideration in 2009.