A well-made but ponderously austere drama.
A Central Asian man travels to Moscow with his young son to find his missing wife in the well-made but ponderously austere drama “Another Sky,” a feature debut for Georgian-born writer-helmer Dmitri Mamuliya. Although pic’s foreign-stranger-in-a-scary-city narrative arc is a well-worn staple of Russian arthouse cinema, aesthetically, the film feels more like an Iranian export with its pared-back dialogue, painterly compositions, and “look, no tears” approach to emotion. Easier to admire than to love, “Another Sky” will clock fest air miles, but faces heavy weather in distribution, even on the domestic front.
When his goats start dying off for unknown reasons, Ali Muhammad (handsomely grizzled Tunisian-French thesp Habib Bufares, from “The Secret of the Grain”) decides it’s time to ankle the unspecified country in which he lives. (Locations in Uzbekistan were used, per closing credits.)
With the merest whisper of a travel montage, Ali and his unnamed 10-year-old son (Afghani refugee Amirza Muhamadi) arrive in a bustling big city. This unnamed locale is just about recognizable as Moscow, despite the lack of establishing shots and the pic’s tendency throughout to use mostly closeups and shallow focus, which reveal little background detail.
Ali is on a quest to find his missing wife, Lila (Iranian thesp Mitra Zahedi), who took off before her son could form any memories of her. One would think this would be about as easy as finding a piece of straw in a needle factory, but Ali seems to have a lead or two. With help from a fellow countryman, this contempo Orpheus in the underworld inquires at a sweatshop, a street kiosk and, eventually, a brothel staffed by Chinese women. Meanwhile, in order to pay for beds in a shabby apartment crammed with other migrant workers, both Ali and his son find menial work. A predictable tragedy in the last act underlines why child labor laws need to be enforced.
Like the almost too elliptical script (credited to Mamuliya and Leonid Sitov), tech credits feel stripped to the bone. Anna Muzychenko’s minimalist, melancholy score (which won a prize at the Sochi fest) blends almost imperceptibly with the source sound mix at times. Abundant nocturnal scenes turn backgrounds into blurry distant lights, often glimpsed through car windows.
It’s lucky the actors, especially Bufares, have so much presence, because they’re called on to emote very little — even, surprisingly, when the worst happens. Some highbrow auds may swoon over the pic’s emotional reticence, but a shaft or two of levity, at least in the early reels, would have offered a welcome respite from the grim trajectory. Helmer Mamuliya, who also writes literary fiction on the side, directs with distinction but slightly too much academic formality.