A young Azerbaijani nobleman falls for a Georgian princess, crossing religions (he’s Muslim, she’s Eastern Orthodox), cultural backgrounds and even ambitions for their country’s future in “Ali and Nino,” and though we take it on faith that this photogenic couple love each other very deeply, director Asif Kapadia’s handsome yet relatively heartless big-screen adaptation confuses romance for beautiful imagery, leaving us cold. Perhaps Kapadia, having delved so deeply into the real-world dreams of “Senna” and “Amy,” simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to simplify Kurban Said’s pseudonymous 1937 literary classic, stripping the material of all but its most David Lean-ian grandeur. Unfortunately, the Oscar-nominated nonfiction helmer’s return to fable-like narrative filmmaking captivates more with its exotic landscapes than with anything that occurs between its characters.
Admittedly, the landscapes in question seldom grace American screens, and despite the fact that the average moviegoer couldn’t locate Azerbaijan on a map, there are certainly audiences culturally curious enough to seek out a tragic romance set against such an exotic backdrop, especially when it hails from a respected novel adapted by “Atonement” scribe Christopher Hampton. But good luck finding any trace of Hampton’s hand in the finished film — or Said’s, for that matter, as Kapadia’s film serves up plot and spectacle, delivered via inexplicably unpoetic English-language dialogue, absent all but the faintest traces of the cultural, gender and historical themes that would have rendered it worth watching.
Best-case scenario, “Ali and Nino” might have been a mini-“Doctor Zhivago”: The timelines of the two pics overlap, after all, as Russia enters World War I and subsequently descends into revolution, with the potential advantage that Said’s novel deals with Azerbaijan’s intriguing two-year window of independence, focusing on a far narrower cast of characters. Said’s novel deals with the uneasy tensions between European and Oriental cultures — each side represented by one half of the title couple — in a country whose rich oil resources suddenly brought the entire region into the crosshairs of larger international schemes.
In the film, we meet Ali (“Omar” star Adam Bakri, being of strong profile and upright posture) and Nino (Spanish actress Maria Valverde, lovely, but by no means his equal) in the middle of nowhere: The couple, who both speak English with thick foreign accents, may as well be Adam and Eve cast from Eden, the only two humans visible for miles around, surrounded by desert from which only the hardiest Azeris can tame a living. Later, once fate sticks its hand into their soppy marriage plans (waylaid by Nino’s parents, played by Mandy Patinkin and Connie Nielsen), they will be forced to escape the capital city of Baku and play house in these mountains.
During the opening stretch, Kapadia spoils our senses with a succession of lavish dinners, balls and operas (all representative of ways in which this Muslim-led country was on a path toward Westernization), but even with composer Dario Marianelli’s lush piano-and-string orchestration, he somehow fails to convey the chemistry between his two leads. In the book, via youthful scenes set at school, we learn that Ali respects Nino’s rejection of the veil, and later, when asking her hand in marriage, adapts his customs to accommodate her own, promising to make her his only wife (as opposed to merely one of his harem).
This arrangement suggests a delicate equality between the two parties, thrown into upheaval when a mutual friend, Malik (Riccardo Scamarcio), betrays Ali, kidnapping and attempting to elope with Nino. This may as well be the defining moment of Kapadia’s film, as Ali jumps on his horse and attempts to chase down Malik’s car — a surrealistic sequence worthy of Tim Burton or Baz Luhrmann, in which the derricks loom like nightmarish obstacles thrust between the lovers, culminating in a knife fight as cinematic as anything the oil-drenched “Giant” or “There Will Be Blood” has to offer.
All but ruined by Malik’s actions, the couple can’t marry as planned, forcing Ali into exile and Nino and her family into desperation. Without providing a clear understanding of blood feuds and other local customs, the film becomes increasingly difficult to follow as Ali’s motives shift from love (his obvious reason for rescuing Nino) to self-preservation (abandoning her the same night) and eventually to some abstract idea of national duty that forces him to decide which he loves more: his wife or his country.
Amid opulent detours through Persia, where Nino once again refuses to wear the veil, and dozens of exotic locations (lensed throughout Turkey and Azerbaijan), Kapadia loses track of what connects his central couple. Compared with the real-world tragedies of “Senna” and “Amy,” “Ali and Nino’s” downer ending can’t help but feel rigged — the result of one too many recklessly suicidal decisions, squandered on lovers who might just as well have lived happily ever after in Paris.