×

Karlovy Vary Film Review: ‘Suleiman Mountain’

A downtrodden Kyrgyz faith healer is reunited with her lost son and seeks a reconciliation with his feckless father in this somber family drama.

Director:
Elizaveta Stishova
With:
Daniel Daiyerbekov, Perizat Ermanbetova, Asset Imangaliev, Turgunay Erkinbekova. (Kyrgyz dialogue)

1 hour 41 minutes

In the blue waiting room of an orphanage sits a Kyrgyz woman in a traditional head scarf, while in a nearby dormitory a young boy is awakened and told his mother has finally come to pick him up. As mother and son stride across the playground together, the other children envy his luck. But there’s something inscrutable about the pair: Zhipara (a beautifully careworn Perizat Ermanbaeva) seems more grimly determined than overjoyed at this reunion, after an unexplained 10-year separation. And Uluk (Daniel Daiyerbekov) looks wary, his eyes those of an old man, set deep and sad in his little-boy face.

This is the quietly arresting beginning to Russian director Elizaveta Stishova’s Kyrgyzstan-set “Suleiman Mountain,” a mixture of sober, ethnographic study and high melodrama that compels even when it doesn’t quite convince. Perhaps it’s Stishova’s outsider point of view that places the film indefinably but unmistakably apart from the recent run of Kyrgyz festival hits, such as Aktan Arym Kubat’s “Centaur” and Temirbek Birnazarov’s “Night Accident.” Certainly, the interweaving of myth, morality and masculinity is not as deft here as in those masterful allegories, but the full-throated dramatics of “Suleiman Mountain” may make it an easier entry point into an immensely rewarding national canon that can seem, to the uninitiated, forbiddingly arcane.

Zhipara is a faith healer who draws her “powers” from strange whipping and retching rituals performed in the crags of the eponymous sacred mountainside. Bringing Uluk home to the squalid, tumbledown apartment in which she lives, she tells him not to worry, that his father, Karabas (a roaring, elemental Asset Imangaliev), will return to make the family whole again — and yes, he’s as strong and noble as the Kyrgyz gods of old. But when Karabas shows up in a wheezing caravan truck with his pregnant second wife, Turganbyubyu (Turgunai Erkinbekova), in tow, it’s immediately clear he’s no hero.

Karabas is a gambler, a cheat and a thief. In fact he’s such an irredeemably unpleasant scoundrel, and such a terrible father to his newly restored son (whom Turganbyubyu suspects of not actually being his son) that it makes it difficult to invest in Zhipara’s plan to inveigle herself back into his life. Of course there is the social standing she gains from having her husband and her child back with her (even if there’s another wife involved — polygamy is technically illegal in Kyrgyzstan but relatively common in some communities). But mostly, Zhipara comes across as among the most capable of women ever to waste herself on a worthless man.

And so mostly we feel a sort of uncomprehending outrage for Zhipara and Uluk as they negotiate Karabas’ mercurial weather-system of moods. Zhipara performs her healing ritual on the ailing mother of the local mayor and is rewarded with money that Karabas gambles away in a seedy bingo den. Uluk is given a remote-control helicopter, for which Karabas finally gets around to buying batteries, only to crash it before the boy even gets a chance to play with it. The moments of harmony are rare, with only one enjoyable extended con-trick sequence pointing to how the unlikely foursome might be able to live together.

As a result, “Suleiman Mountain” works best when it’s giving us an unvarnished look at the uneasy coexistence of the mystical, superstitious past with the venal, grasping present, and the hardscrabble lives of the modern Kyrgyz underclass, as captured in Tudor Vladimir Panduru’s understatedly gritty camerawork. It is less successful tracking the rather soap-operatic interactions between the makeshift family, especially one so riven with deceit and uncertainty. Is Zhipara a charlatan or a real healer? Is Uluk really her child? Does the sweet-natured, worried-looking Uluk himself know?

All the while, the influence the hulking mountain exerts over their destinies remains unclear. It’s perhaps here that the strain shows most in Alisa Khmelnitskaya’s screenplay, which never quite knits theme and plot together tightly enough to satisfy. There are winning performances, especially from Ermanbaeva and Daiyerbekov, but the real human motivations behind their mechanistic behaviors remain frustratingly opaque. “Home is where you are beloved,” Zhipara tells Uluk, but despite the desperate craving for family that clearly drives her, there’s precious little affection: She wants to be with Karabas, but surely not because she loves him, and even her relationship to Uluk seems less devoted than functional. Perhaps that’s ultimately the obscure point that Stishova, in her ambitiously cross-cultural debut feature, wants to make: Kyrgyz patriarchy may be as terrifyingly indifferent to the struggles of its womenfolk as the mountain is to the human dramas playing out on its slopes, but still nothing is as truly unknowable as the contents of the human heart.

Popular on Variety

Karlovy Vary Film Review: 'Suleiman Mountain'

Reviewed at Karlovy Vary Film Festival, July 3, 2018. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Discovery.) Running Time: 101 MIN. Original Title: ("Suleyman Gora")

Production: (Kyrgyzstan-Russia) A Virtual Kick Studio, Laeto Films, Y-Yatsura and Aitysh Film production.(International Sales: Antipode Sales & Distribution, Moscow.) Producers: Yelena Yatsura, Andrey Devyatkin, Victor Kuznetsov. Co-producers: Radoslawa Bardes, Tomasz Morawski, Sadyk Sher-Niyaz.

Crew: Director: Elizaveta Stishova. Screenplay: Alisa Khmelnitskaya. Camera (Color, widescreen): Tudor Vladimir Panduru. Editor: Karolina Maciejewska.

With: Daniel Daiyerbekov, Perizat Ermanbetova, Asset Imangaliev, Turgunay Erkinbekova. (Kyrgyz dialogue)

More Film

  • Metro 2033

    Cult Sci-Fi Novel 'Metro 2033' to Be Adapted as Movie (EXCLUSIVE)

    Russia’s TNT-Premier Studios Company, TV-3 Channel and Central Partnership Film Company – all part of Gazprom Media – have come together to produce a movie based on Dmitry Glukhovsky’s sci-fi novel “Metro 2033,” which has also been adapted as a video game. Filming is due to start next year. The Russian premiere of the movie [...]

  • Beforeigners

    'Beforeigners’' Anne Bjornstad on HBO's First Norwegian Original Series

    HAUGESUND, Norway  —  HBO Europe’s first Norwegian original series, which debuted Aug. 21 exclusively across HBO’s territories, has garnered rave reviews in the Norwegian press. It is also a perfect fit for HBO’s brand and goal to create bold, smart and author-driven shows. Produced by Endemol Shine’s Norwegian prodco Rubicon TV, “Beforeigners” is helmed by [...]

  • Refugees from the besieged Muslim enclave

    Sarajevo’s True Stories Market: Documenting the Atrocities of War

    Reconciliation and dealing with the tragedies of the Yugoslav Wars has been a major focus of the Sarajevo Film Festival and its CineLink Industry Days event in recent years. The True Stories Market, launched in 2016, aims to connect filmmakers with organizations that are researching and documenting the Yugoslav Wars that spanned 1991 to 2001 [...]

  • Ena Sendijarevic’s ‘Take Me Somewhere Nice’

    Ena Sendijarevic’s ‘Take Me Somewhere Nice’ Wins Top Prize in Sarajevo

    “Take Me Somewhere Nice,” Bosnian director Ena Sendijarević’s coming-of-age story about a teen raised in the Netherlands who returns to Bosnia to visit her ailing father, won the top prize at the Sarajevo Film Festival Thursday night, earning the Amsterdam-based helmer the coveted Heart of Sarajevo Award. The jury heralded the “beautifully photographed, acted, scripted [...]

  • Khadar Ahmed - BUFO - photo

    Bufo Sets Key Cast for Co-Production ‘The Gravedigger' (EXCLUSIVE)

    HAUGESUND, Norway  —   Actor Omar Abdi, who starred in the Ahmed-scripted short “Citizens,” and actress Yasmin Warsame, who made her name as a Canadian model, will topline romantic-tragedy “The Gravedigger,” the latest big screen project from Bufo, the Helsinki-based outfit behind Berlinale winner “The Other Side of Hope.” The film follows a Djibouti gravedigger [...]

  • Jacobs Ladder Movie 2019

    Film Review: 'Jacob's Ladder'

    It’s understandable that someone would want to remake “Jacob’s Ladder,” Adrian Lyne’s 1990 head-trip thriller about a Vietnam veteran haunted by fragmentary nightmare visions. I was far from alone in finding the original to be an overwrought but rather thin “psychological” horror film that was more punishing than pleasurable. And it wasn’t exactly a hit, [...]

  • Fiddler A Miracle of Miracles

    Film Review: 'Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles'

    Still beloved and routinely revived 55 years after its Broadway debut — including a Yiddish-language version now playing in New York — “Fiddler on the Roof” is a popular phenomenon that shows no sign of subsiding. Max Lewkowicz’s “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” provides an entertaining if hardly exhaustive overview of how the unlikely success [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content