Beneath a stunning turquoise and tangerine late-evening sky, a man sneaks up to an outhouse where a guard is relieving himself and locks him in. The literal thief in the night then slips into a nearby stable and emerges on a thoroughbred horse that he rides at a gallop across the darkened plains, saddle-less and wild, his arms exultantly raised to the heavens. It’s an exhilarating beginning to Kyrgyz director Aktan Arym Kubat’s enchanting sixth feature, and it signals the fable-like register in which the film exists: There’s beauty, bawdiness and melancholy in this tale, which feels so ancient it might have been woven into a carpet and passed down through the generations as a family heirloom.
And yet “Centaur” is also contemporary, and while it tugs on strands that reach back into a mythical past, it is shot and composed with a modernity that stands in stark complementary contrast. Full of humor and sad-eyed wisdom, set to a horsehoof drumbeat and to Andre Matthias’ sparingly used, romantic score, our horse thief’s life may be exotic and strange to those of us unfamiliar with the nature of village life in Kyrgyzstan. But the endearingly empathetic central performance — from the director in the title role — and the freedom and lyricism of Khassan Kydyraliev’s photography give an airy realism to even the most arcane detail. Perhaps it’s because the intention here is not to cast an anthropological eye on a disappearing culture, though the film has academic value in that regard too. Rather the desire is more universal and generous: to remind us of all the things we’ve forgotten that our ancestors knew.
The rider (Kubat) was nicknamed Centaur a long time ago, and the name has stuck. He lives a simple life as a family man; he’s married to deaf-mute Maripa (Zarema Asanalieva), and they dote on their young son, whom he and Maripa fear may also be mute and are trying to coax into talking. Centaur used to be a projectionist (there’s a poster on the wall for the Soviet drama “The Red Apple”), but as the local population gradually converted to Islam, the theater was turned into a mosque. Now he works as a casual laborer, which brings him daily past a food stall run by pretty widow Sharapat (Taalakian Abazova), of whose homemade maksym (a Kyrgyz drink made from fermented grains) he is particularly fond. Under the disapproving eye of a meddling neighbor, Centaur and Sharapat twinkle at each other in shy flirtation.
But the horse that Centaur stole — or rather, borrowed — was a valuable one, belonging to the richest man in town, who turns out to be Centaur’s brother, Karabay (Bolot Tentimyshov). Eventually, after accusing the wrong man — the villain of the piece, Sadyr (Ilim Kalmuratov), who is also Sharapat’s abusive partner — Karabay sets up an elaborate sting and catches Centaur in the act. Before a village tribunal Centaur, such a fluid storyteller with his son, haltingly tries to explain his motives for taking the horse, but it’s a compulsion even he doesn’t fully understand, except that it has something to do with a dream about the Kyrgyz horse-god.
In later scenes, particularly a lovely if somewhat on-the-nose moment when Centaur ducks out of a prayer service to revisit his old projection room, there is some mild critique of the kind of performative devotion that seems to suffice in place of real faith. And while his suit-wearing, materially successful brother personifies the schism between Kyrgyzstan’s ancient, rich history and the conformist, capitalist pressures of today, he is by no means beyond redemption. “Centaur” is not a screed against religion or progress or the inevitable forces of change; instead it’s a tiny, human pause in that process, a finger held up briefly to get us to listen to the wind, to hear a tale from the past while we march into the future, to remember.
Whether sprawled on the carpet playing with his son or watching a crackly print of “The Red Apple” with an openmouthed expression of childish wonder, Centaur is both a humble man and a tragic hero. So of course his unworldliness must be punished, and the story must gently break your heart. But it is also uplifting to feel such a warm connection to the distant, folkloric past. The Krygyz proverb that is repeated throughout says that horses were once “the wings of men,” and watching “Centaur” feels like answering the call of the blood from back when we could fly.