Three Brothers” is a poignant fairy tale that considers through the eyes of a group of children the conflict between the dreams and illusions of the past and the brutal reality of the modern world, represented in this case by military power. Distinguished by its lyrical imagery, gentle humor and by Kazakh new wave director Serik Aprymov’s penetrating way of observing the young cast’s solemn faces, this bittersweet, affecting drama should continue to charm festival audiences in the coming months and may score theatrical dates at specialized venues.
The siblings of the title live in a remote village in rural Kazakhstan near a small train station, a kind of graveyard for locomotives presided over by a WWII concentration camp survivor nicknamed Klein. The old man spins tall stories to keep the kids entertained, sparking their budding libidos with his descriptions of a bordello full of beautiful women by an idyllic lake beyond the mountains.
Divided into titled chapters, the majority of the action recounts the kids’ picaresque adventures as they plot ways to make the trip to the lake and attempt to get together enough cash to sample the women’s pleasures. After several failed schemes, they pull off a payroll robbery and hijack one of Klein’s engines to transport them. When the old man realizes they are headed through a military zone where pilots are using locomotives as targets for air-strike practice, he cranks up a second engine and goes after them.
The elegiac tale is narrated many years later by the youngest boy, who gets left behind on the ill-fated trip and grows up to join the air force and be stationed at the base near his childhood home.
Aprymov’s approach — particularly the attention he lavishes on the intense gazes of the urchins, all non-actors and completely natural — at times borders on sentimental. But there’s a captivating simplicity to his storytelling that prevents the material from becoming saccharine. Shot with a warm, autumnal glow, the dusty, unpopulated settings are beautifully framed by cinematographer Fedor Aranishev, whose work is composed without looking fussy.
The film had its world premiere at the Rotterdam fest as part of a spotlight on Aprymov, who is best known for his 1989 debut feature, “Last Stop.”