Reportedly inspired by Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” the downbeat Azeri drama “Pomegranate Orchard” from Armenian-born director Ilgar Najaf is a deliberately paced tale with a visually mannered style that keeps viewers at arm’s length and distances them from the full impact of the tragic proceedings. Set in rural Azerbaijan, it revolves around the return of a prodigal son with ulterior motives whose reappearance in the bosom of his family after a 12-year absence significantly changes their way of life. Further festival travel is possible, but programmers will likely find it less charming and engaging than Najaf’s previous feature, “Buta” (2012).
Aging Shamil (Gurban Ismayilov) is becoming too infirm to maintain the family pomegranate orchard, which has long been his pride and joy and whose saplings are highly valued by other growers. There are many who would like to buy him out, but the old man refuses all offers.
Shamil shares his house with his daughter-in-law Sara (Ilahe Hasanova) and visually disabled young grandson Jalal (Hesen Aghayev). His beloved elder son died in a car accident some years previously. Following that tragedy, his black-sheep younger son Gabil (Semimi Farhad), Sara’s husband, left town without a word.
When Gabil turns up out of the blue one rainy night, maintaining that he is doing well and wants to bring his family to join him in his new life in Moscow, Shamil is understandably suspicious. Sara, however, seems pleased to see the man who abandoned her with no news for all these long years. A scene in which she performs a cupping massage to treat his bad cold practically simmers with sexual tension.
Although Gabil somewhat reluctantly helps with the pomegranate harvest, he mostly spends his time at the village tea shop, acting the big man, even though he has to borrow money in order to cover the bills he is paying for others. Director Najaf makes everything about Gabil contrast with the slow-paced, low-tech life lived by Shamil, Sara and Jalal; with his city clothes, cell phone and taunts about Shamil’s lack of a television, Gabil represents an unwelcome intrusion of modernity. Viewers will recognize long before Sara does that Gabil is the instrument that will bring about the situation predicted by her symbol-filled nightmare.
The screenplay that Najaf co-wrote with Dutch script doctor Roelof Yan Minneboo (who also collaborated on Karlovy Vary competition title “Khibula”) and compatriot helmer Asif Rustamov (“Down the River”) is heavily reliant on dialogue for exposition, telling rather than showing. Even so, it begs many questions, first and foremost, would any woman so readily accept a man that left her for more than a decade?
Some of the casting decisions also challenge credibility. According to the timeline spelled out by the dialogue, Gabil was only 18 when he fled the village, but Farhad, the actor playing Gabil looks considerably more than 30. Likewise, according to the scheme of things, Jalal should be 12 or just about, but Aghayev, the non-pro essaying the role, looks no older than eight.
Cinematographer Ayhan Salar favors a self-consciously arty shooting style that fails to enhance the drama as the camera repeatedly tracks in through a window and then pulls back to reveal the action in medium shot. The lack of closeups also works against empathy for the characters.