Films from Azerbaijan rarely if ever make the fest circuit, so the cine-literacy of “The Bat” comes as something of a surprise. Dedicated to the centenary of cinema, Ajas Salajev’s striking, offbeat and intriguing pic takes a classical triangular love story and fills it with references to the literature, music and cinema of the West. Result is baffling at times, but always compulsively watchable, and should be seen at many fests in the coming year.
Set in the late 1920s in a dusty city (presumably Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku) , film tells, elliptically, the romantic story of a young actress, her older, erudite husband and her raffish lover. The husband is steeped in the arts, and lectures on “The World of Fantasy.” Much of the action unfolds in and around a cinema where, in the early scenes, silent classics (“The Golem,””The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”) are screened to piano accompaniment while the woman, Turan, and her husband watch in rapt attention.
Turan herself stars in a locally made film titled “The Bat” (nothing to do with the Roland West creeper), which later screens at the cinema.
When sound films arrive, with “The Blue Angel,” Turan’s husband suddenly and mysteriously goes blind. Soon, Turan invites her lover to move into her house, and there follow several scenes in which the husband suspects, but is never certain, that he and his wife are no longer alone together.
Given that Azerbaijan is a predominantly Muslim country, full-frontal nude scenes in this section of the film come as quite a surprise. Pic ends with a murder in the cinema, symbolizing, perhaps, the death of silent movies. But Salajev also seems to be exploring the different approaches to art in the Muslim world where, as the husband notes, art and life are separate.
“The Bat” isn’t easily accessible on one viewing, but it’s unquestionably an unusual, at times startling film, shot with a rigorous eye to detail. Salajev uses repeated images of the same streets, at different times of the day and year , but always shot from precisely the same position. One extraordinary shot divides the screen into three sections: In the left panel, the cuckolded husband miserably clutches a scarlet cushion; in the center, water flows into a bathtub; in the right, the wife and her lover couple on a bed. Pic opens with acknowledgments to the films and books that inspired it, and also cites the music of Frederick Hollander and Charles Chaplin as sources of inspiration. It’s a haunting, genuinely poetic experience.