An enchanting, lighthearted comedy-drama about a Kazakh youth obsessed with a female space traveler, “Baikonur” aims for the stars and takes auds over the moon. Delicately avoiding the pitfalls of condescending ruralism and wide-eyed optimism, German writer-director Veit Helmer delivers a graceful film that entertains and touches. Pic managed only small arthouse returns upon its September bow in Germany, but upcoming Russian and Kazakh releases will earn more coin, and careful management by a savvy distrib could see this follow in the slipstream of 2008’s “Tulpan” for a deserved run on the international arthouse circuit.
Operating on the principle that “what drops from the sky is a gift from God,” Kazakh nomads scavenge for scrap metal amid the debris thrown off by rockets ascending from the Baikonur launchpad. Leading his tribe in the treasure hunt is space-obsessed youth Iskander Orynbekov (Alexander Asochakov) nicknamed Gagarin after the Soviet cosmonaut. Gagarin keeps track of blast-offs via his ham radio, calculates the likely drop points and coordinates trade with other tribes.
Gagarin’s space obsession reaches greater heights when he catches sight of beautiful French billionaire Julie Mahe (Marie de Villepin) on TV. Julie is among the latest batch of wealthy tourists able to pay $20 million for a week’s space travel launching from Baikonur. Pic moves from charming curiosity to cross-cultural fairy tale when Julie falls to earth in a space capsule; ahead of the Russian authorities, Gagarin finds the luminous but comatose cosmonaut and hides her in his yurt. Gagarin awakens the sleeping beauty with a kiss, and while she’s grateful for being saved, she also has amnesia.
Script, co-written by Helmer and Sergei Ashkenazy (a Russian TV director and occasional documaker) lends the events a feeling of authenticity, and the Kazakh actors are given free rein to play variations on their real selves. Overall, the pic presents an honest understanding of the contradictions of a situation where rural people subsist on the crumbs of a modern and scientifically sophisticated workforce. Though sometimes flirting with hokiness, the film appreciates the predicament of the Kazakh nomads without overly romanticizing it.
Asochakov is beguiling as the Kazakh youth who dreams of life beyond the confines of his village; he nails the resourcefulness of a smart young man, but also catches the naivete of someone whose experiences are limited to tribal life. De Villepin is suitably mesmerizing as the heavenly body Gagarin is most interested in. Somewhat less successful is Sitora Farmonova as a disheveled Kazak girl who clearly fancies Gagarin; not even bedraggled hair flecked with camel manure can hide the actress’s exquisite beauty from the audience, even if Gagarin fails to notice it.
Kolya Kano’s lensing does a splendid job of capturing the windswept Kazakh steppes, and NASA space footage is neatly sutured into the film without disrupting the fluid narrative. Score by Goran Bregovic is rich and dramatic, but also can be playful when required. All other tech credits are solid.