Like the 8 Mile of Azerbaijan, the dead-end settlement at the 40-kilometer marker outside Baku shelters mostly street kids and hoodlums, along with one teenage dreamer who fancies a career in music. But director Elchin Musaoglu’s “The 40th Door” is no Hollywood-style rags-to-riches tale, offering instead a stripped-down neorealist fable in the vein of Vittorio De Sica and the strong Iranian films of a decade ago. There may be something overly familiar about such stories by now, and yet this one feels fresh and free from cliche, a touching portrait with the potential for modest arthouse returns.
The title refers to the rural community young Rustam (Hasan Safarov) calls home, as well as a local legend in which a hero succeeds in rescuing a princess from a castle with 40 doors without ever having to face the obstacle inside the final locked room. Rustam is a resourceful lad who, despite his poverty, seems to enjoy a somewhat idyllic life until news arrives of his father’s death (resulting in the film’s only false moment, a slow-motion bit in which his mother collapses on her porch).
The funeral forces responsibility on the poor kid, who resolves to find a job in nearby Baku — a decision that entails passing through the metaphoric 40th door, despite his mother’s wishes to the contrary. Rustam is young enough to still be optimistic, yet he’s easily fooled when shady friends such as neighborhood hustler Edik (Rousan Agayev) enlist him in their petty cons. Rustam’s initial goal is simply to earn enough that they won’t have to sell the valuable old rug that has been in their family for generations, but once in the city, he stumbles across a drum band and begins to entertain fantasies of his own future as a musician.
It goes without saying that nothing comes easy to the characters in such films, and sure enough, every small victory brings another obstacle to Rustam’s potential happiness. Still, Musaoglu’s style feels unforced and almost effortlessly naturalistic. When cops arrest Edik or a trio of local gangsters shake Rustam down, these feel like real setbacks, and Rustam’s reaction demonstrates the degree to which his innocence has been compromised in just the short span of time the film covers.
Through it all, the character retains a core sense of decency, even going so far as to take Edik’s blind brother under his personal care. There is nothing particularly remarkable about Safarov, the young actor who plays Rustam, but then, Musaoglu doesn’t seem to subscribe to the notion of casting moon-eyed urchins in such roles. The helmer’s approach remains largely observational, focusing more on how the characters handle various situations (a scene in which Rustam outwits the man intent on buying their antique rug proves especially memorable) than telegraphing their emotional states.
Production values are modest yet professional, with mostly sunlit Azerbaijani locations lending the experience an authentic sense of this under-represented region.