Although “Comrade Boykenzhayev” takes a satirical look back at life under Soviet rule, its jocular view of the intractability of religious separatism has a timely ring. Broad humor and Socialist Realist spoofing buoy the blackly comic story of a plucky schlemiel, who earnestly accepts responsibility for building the first international, interreligious cemetery for his small Uzbek town. Likeable but not outstanding, pic is strictly fest- and rep-cinema fodder.
When a visiting bigwig snuffs it from overindulgence moments after suggesting there ought to be a cemetery so everyone in the area — Uzbek, Russians, Jews — could all come together in one final resting place, local Communist Party boss Azamet Sergeyevich (O’lmes Allxo’jayev) vows to honor the man’s dying wish.
He picks Boykenzhayev (moon-faced Farkhod Abdullayev) to see the project through. Thinking the appointment is his chance to impress a female worker at the orphanage he was raised at, Boykenzhayev zealously goes about getting everyone in town to help construct the new cemetery, which is laid out like a five-pointed star. Cue parody montage, reminiscent of the Soviet “tractor films” of the 1940s and ’50s, of villagers with construction implements aloft, nobly laboring for the good of the community.
But while the locals may be up for digging graves, no one actually wants to lie in them, separated from their relatives. To make matters worse, the Party insists on opening the cemetery with a funeral for an Uzbek. Boykenzhayev starts stalking the town, looking for someone terminally ill who’d make a suitable first resident. A bit of old-fashioned slapstick has one family of Muslim Uzbeks propping their dead patriarch up in the garden, manipulating his arms like puppeteers, to fool Boykenzhayev. Worse, when the hospital finally has a corpse, he’s Korean. Worse still, a shaman manages to raise him from the dead, and her magic rejuvenates everyone else in the hospital at the same time. Ultimately, Boykenzhayev must decide whether he’s willing to die, literally, for his country.
Helmer and co-scribe Razykov (aka Razikov) runs UzbekFilm, and may be a familiar name among connoisseurs of Central Asian cinema. His last film, “Orator,” like this one poked fun at Soviets who would try to erode traditional Uzbek ways of life, and in the case of “Comrade Boykenzhayev,” death. Nevertheless, Razykov endows his hero with a certain quixotic heroism as he tenaciously pursues his goal, suggesting a certain empathy with the ideal of multiculturalism, albeit within an idea whimsically conceived by a drunken bureaucrat.
As the hapless city-of-the-dead town planner, Abdullayev, surprisingly fast on his feet despite his butterball shape, brings a brisk energy and genuine pathos to the role.
Tech credits are strong, with some impressive high-angle lensing creating an occasionally comic vertiginous sense. Crisp editing keeps up the comic momentum, as does the cheerful quasi-martial score, its strong brass, sounding both optimistic and pompous at the same time, striking just the right note.