A difficult period in 20th-century Kazakh history is rendered allegorically, simplistically and sometimes bewilderingly in “Stranger,” a ruggedly attractive epic from the normally more nuanced writer-helmer Yermek Tursunov. The third in a trilogy about Kazakh identity after “Kelin” and “The Old Man,” “Stranger” offers characters that are more emblematic than flesh-and-blood, which makes it difficult to take a rooting interest. Nevertheless, the pic has certain qualities in common with its predecessors, including traditional motifs and imagery, the harsh environment of the steppe, gorgeous fur costumes, and a designation as Kazakhstan’s foreign-language Oscar submission. Further fest play is guaranteed.
Although the chronology is not clearly indicated in the film for outsiders unfamiliar with the history, “Stranger” covers about a quarter-century, beginning with the collectivization of agriculture and livestock, the famine and Soviet purges of the 1930s, and continuing to the mid-1950s. Throughout, Tursunov is more concerned with making metaphorical points about freedom and conformity, and tradition and modernity, than with depicting realistic action or psychologically complex characters, an approach that doesn’t prove particularly rewarding.
The eponymous protagonist is Ilyas, shown in the opening credits as a 9-year-old, hunting in the mountains with his father during a time of famine and learning survival skills. After Soviet officials seize his father, young Ilyas also apprehends some unpleasant truths about the less honorable things adults will do to survive as his next-door neighbor runs off with his father’s beloved horse. Before anyone can grab his colt, Ilyas gather some belongings and rides off into the mountains.
Apparently his father’s survival lessons — and sharp knife — are all that Ilyas needs. He shelters in a cozy cave and survives by hunting and trapping. With the help of his elderly former teacher, Ybrai (Alexander Karpov), he trades animal skins for the things he cannot trap or make. And for company, he rescues orphaned wolf cubs. Occasionally on his visits to Ybrai, he sees his youthful playmates, Kamshut (who carries a torch for him) and Gani, who grows up to become a Soviet apparatchik.
As a young man, Ilyas (now played by Yerzhan Nurimbet) refuses to go with Gani (Kuandyk Kystykbayev) to join the Soviet army. While Gani is away, he brings food to Katmut (Elina Abai Kyzy), who is now Gani’s wife. A spark exists between them still, but ultimately she refuses to leave her yurt for his mountain retreat.
Although Ilyas manages to survive the Stalinist era as a free spirit, the villagers ultimately turn against him, calling him a traitor for refusing to serve in the army. Ilyas emerges a broken man and is forced to tend the sheep from the collective farms. He briefly shares his solitary existence with an alcoholic Caucasian woman (Rosa Khairullina), apparently a released dissident from some other part of the Soviet Union, although nothing is explained. Indeed, this section of the film, focusing on her whimsical and obdurate behavior, doesn’t fit well with the rest. The protagonist’s ultimate fate obviously symbolizes something greater in Tursonov’s scheme of things, but exactly what fails to register here.
Nurimbet and Kystykbayev, who were cast as murderous rivals in “Kelin,” are mere archetypes here, with Nurimbet evincing nobility and Kystykbayev shiftiness. The craft credits look expensive (all those furs, the drone shots) but are entirely lacking in subtlety (the artistically dirt-smudged faces, the costume-y looking costumes). Still, Murat Aliyev’s gorgeous widescreen lensing of the steppe’s harsh beauty and Kuat Shildebayev’s melancholy score do provide genuine cinematic pleasures.