Fans of helmer Bakhtiar Khudoijnazarov's "Luna Papa" will find some similar fairy-tale elements in this otherwise over-baked Europudding, with Central Asian ingredients straight out of a cookbook from 30 years ago.

As the saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth, though the recipe for “Waiting for the Sea” was flawed before pen left paper. Fans of helmer Bakhtiar Khudoijnazarov’s “Luna Papa” will find some similar fairy-tale elements in this otherwise over-baked Europudding, with Central Asian ingredients straight out of a cookbook from 30 years ago. The visuals can be pleasing, and there’s something impressive about watching a man drag a boat across a barren wasteland in search of the sea, yet the act will neither bring back the water nor return the coin extended by multinational producers.

Apart from Russia and the central Asian republics, it’s hard to know where “Waiting for the Sea” will play, other than probably short runs in France and Germany. Fest exposure will be limited, as the pic is unlikely to garner kudos from crix or the public, despite a certain ersatz exoticism that calls to mind Radu Mihaileanu’s work, were he ever to shoot in Kazakhstan.

Ignoring ominous premonitions, Capt. Marat (Egor Beroev) sets off in his boat with his wife, Dari (Anastasia Mikulchina), and crew. A wall of CGI clouds engulfs the ship, and in the next scene Marat is lying face-down in sand; gone is his vessel, his crew, his wife — and the sea. Sometime later (as helpfully noted onscreen), Marat is returning home on a train when he meets Dari’s younger sis, Tamara (also played by Mikulchina), who’s always had the hots for her brother-in-law. Persistence pays off, and they have sex among the watermelons in the train’s hold, but it’ll be the last time he succumbs.

Marat has returned despite knowing everyone blames him for the death of his wife and crew, though at least he’s not credited with the mysterious disappearance of the sea. Khudoijnazarov based this idea on the real loss of the Aral Sea, and the film’s best moments are long shots of the region’s parched and dusty lunar landscape. However, “Waiting for the Sea” doesn’t attempt to provide an explanation for the vanished waters, treating the concept much as a fairy tale would; in Soviet times, surely this would be a metaphor, and while the film feels as if it were made during the early Gorbachev era, there appears to be no deeper message.

With the sometime assistance of best friend Balthazar (Detlev Buck), Marat sets out on a quest to find his ship where the sea used to be, and drag it to the water, which he’s certain must be nearby. The task, accomplished with a few logs, some rope and a lot of elbow grease, is difficult, yet his focus is unswerving despite local opposition and Tamara’s distracting desires.

Grandstanding seems to be the default mode here; characters behave with the kind of over-the-top mad exuberance seen in Eastern European movies from the 1970s. Everyone seems to be in heat, whether of a sexual or merely obsessive nature (Buck’s Balthazar is a particularly egregious example), and the obvious dubbing only makes it feel even more artificial.

As with all fairy tales, there’s no sense of period, so the action could be taking place now or 50 years ago. Most of the village scenes showcase a faux-quaint version of local customs, including shamans and stocky women in peasant clothes; only Dari/Tamara is Western-style attractive, sporting alluring dresses of a flattering cut paired with impractical shoes. It’s unclear who it’s all for, and scenes move from one to the other without a real sense of progression.

Lensing, credited to three cinematographers (one less than “Luna Papa”), is attractive, though frequently it’s the landscape that impresses rather than the camerawork. Cellos bow deeply exactly when expected.

Waiting for the Sea

Russia-Belgium-France-Kazakhstan-Germany

Production

A Pallas Film, Viss, Entre Chien et Loup, Silk Road Prods., Cinema Project Group -- Lanabond, National Production Center -- Baytarek, Kinolitpros, ZDF/Arte, JSC Kazakhfilm production, with the participation of Tajikfilm. (International sales: the Match Factory, Cologne.) Produced by Thanassis Karathanos, Karl Baumgartner, Bakhtiar Khudoijnazarov, Rusht Rusthov, Sebastien Delloye, Diana Elbaum, Behrooz Hashemian, Setareh Farsi. Coproducers, Alexander Sosis, Marina Ionko, Arman Assenov, Mikhail Yakovlev. Directed by Bakhtiar Khudoijnazarov. Screenplay, Sergej Ashkenazy, based on an idea of Khudoijnazarov.

Crew

Camera (color), Jan Vancaillie, Dusan Joksimovic, Rifkat Ibragimov; editors, Salome Machaidze, Danielius Kokanauskis; music, Shuhei Kamimura; production designers, Nigmat Djuraev, Agi Dawaachu; costume designers, Zebo Nasirova, Nina Dobrina; sound (Dolby Digital), Jean Umansky, Gennady Sokolov, Johannes Doberenz, Martin Fruehmorgen, David Gillain; casting, Akhmedova Makhbuba. Reviewed at Rome Film Festival (opener), Nov. 9, 2012. Running time: 109 MIN.

With

Egor Beroev, Anastasia Mikulchina, Detlev Buck, Dinmukhamet Akhimov, Radzhab-Ali Guseynov, Pavel Priluchnyi, Daulet Kekelbayev, Alexander Rabotyaga. (Russian dialogue)

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