Killing makes a man a man in the puzzling “To Get to Heaven You Have to Die,” an artfully lensed but psychologically unpersuasive initiation tale from Tajikistan. In this variation on the down-home whimsy that delighted viewers of “Flight of the Bee” and “Angel on the Right,” maverick helmer Djamshed Usmanov finds an extreme cure for his impotent young hero, but film’s unsettling connection between love and death lacks any satisfying logic. This slowly paced, refined object of French-influenced cinema could slide into niche markets on the coattails of “Angel,” though with a little less success.
Opening scene of good-looking 19-year-old Kamal (Khurched Golibekov) stripping in a doctor’s office, then lying naked in an elegant, fixed frame long take, pretty much sets the agenda of gentle voyeurism that characterizes the film. After three months of being unable to make love to his young bride back in his native village, the boy is ready to try anything before going home.
His more sophisticated city cousin proposes a visit to a prostitute, but even the pro can’t get a rise out of poor Kamal. He spends an entire days sitting around the vast empty spaces of post-Soviet buildings and waiting at bus stops for a girl to turn him on.
When he finally picks up Vera (Dinara Droukarova), a plain Russian lass who works in a factory, he doesn’t realize she’s married. The unexpected return of her criminal husband (Maruf Pulodzoda) midway through the film kicks the trailing story back to life, as the husband gets Kamal involved in burglary, rape and murder.
The three-handed cast works well in this simple framework. As the unhappy Kamal, non-pro Golibekov is a naturally passive observer who allows himself to be drawn into dangerous situations. Tough guy Pulodzoda, who played the lead in “Angel on the Right,” lends a note of deadpan humor, while professional thesp Droukarova turns Vera into a genuinely poignant character to whom audiences can relate.
Certainly, Usmanov’s script deliberately under writes all the characters, leaving much to the viewer’s imagination. Two key scenes that could have shed light on Kamal’s sexual dysfunctioning are perversely introduced, then elided.
One is the night he spends in Vera’s bed — does he or doesn’t he? — and the second, even more critical, is what happens after her husband demands he don a woman’s red dress. Moments like these, added to the extremely slow rhythm, give the film a frustratingly precious tone.
Compared to his earlier films, Usmanov makes a long stride ahead in creating a strong personal aesthetic thanks to sensitive technical work. Since everything is shot in long takes, Jacques Comets’ editing looks deceptively simple, but is nearly always on the mark. Likewise, there is a stirring purity about Pascal Lagriffoul’s clean-edged cinematography and carefully composed shots.