A Ukrainian femme agrees to rent out her womb for a gay Moscow couple in the uneven but not uninteresting drama “Bedouin.” Somewhat reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers with its hyperrealist handheld look and focus on lives of quiet desperation, this third feature by Russian helmer Igor Voloshin reps a change from the baroque style he deployed previously in “Nirvana” and “Me.” Unfortunately, pic’s last-act descent into meller territory and sentimental orientalist guff undermines the solid work that precedes it. “Bedouin” will migrate around the fest circuit but won’t go much further.
Rita (Olga Simonova, “Me”) takes the Kiev train to Moscow, where she meets businessman Ivan (Remigijus Sabulis) and his driver/lover, Malik (Dorzhi Galsanov), although it’s not clear at first that the very straight-acting Ivan and Malik are a couple. En route to the apartment the men have leased for her, Rita haggles with Ivan over how much she’ll get for carrying his surrogate baby to term, settling on £30,000. Later, a call home to Rita’s mother reveals she needs the money to pay for the treatment of her teenage daughter Nastya (Serafima Migai), who has leukemia.
Although clearly devoted to Nastya, to whom she speaks periodically via webcam, Rita clearly feels no great love for her unborn child; she even smokes throughout the pregnancy. But Voloshin’s script makes clear that Rita has very few other options available to her: When Ivan fails to pay her on time and she needs money urgently for Nastya, the by-now heavily pregnant Rita turns to her neighbor and occasional lover, Zhenya (Mikhail Yevlanov), a merchant with shady underworld connections, to help her out. He duly sets her up with an audition for a specialist porn film.
Until this point, what could have been a depressing wallow in Slavic miserablism is lifted from the mire by the heroine’s ferocious lack of self-pity and determination to help her daughter, and later her fetus, survive. With her sharp, angular features but petite frame, Simonova embodies a compelling mixture of spikiness and vulnerability, like an angry little hedgehog. When she relaxes and smiles, as in scenes with her friend Zina (Anna Mikhalkova), she possesses an almost Madonna-like incandescence.
Unfortunately, Voloshin paints himself into a narrative corner and has no other recourse but to resort to weird deus ex machina accidents, predictable violence and unrealistically lucky breaks to move the story on, resulting in a third act that sees Rita and Nastya setting off into the Jordanian sunset in search of kindly Bedouin tribes and spiritual redemption.
At least the scenery in the Middle Eastern coda is pretty, especially in the hands of d.p. Aleksei Rodionov (“Generation P,” Sally Potter’s “Yes” and “Orlando”), whose light-footed lensing and knack for framing are a major plus. Perhaps due to Rodionov’s input, pic departs from the stylized look Voloshin favored in his earlier features, and instead harks back to the helmer’s documentary roots.