It can take a moment to adjust to the quiet, grave rhythms of the impossibly gorgeous “2000 Songs of Farida,” where the imagemaking is so resplendent as to be disorienting, given how accustomed we are to a cinema in which the pictures primarily serve the storytelling. But Yalkin Tuychiev’s film, which is Uzebkistan’s entry for the international Oscar, is hardly lacking in story: This historical drama is simply told with such grace that its opening scenes feel like snatches of a melody that needs to reach its refrain before we can recognize it as a song — one that harmonizes between the caged bird longing to be free, and the freed bird longing for the comfort and safety of her cage.
The vast backdrop, flattered by the blanched grandeur of DP Bakhodir Yuldashev’s incredible imagery, is the wilderness where scrubby steppes extend out from the foothills of arid mountains in rural Uzbekistan. The offhand mention of the recent execution of Tzar Nicholas II puts it in late 1918 or after — it is not clear how long that news might have taken to travel to this remote part of the former Russian Empire. Certainly the scattered dwellings belonging to landowner Kamil (Bahrom Matchanov) do not look like they have been touched by modernity, and the traditional, patriarchally polygamous lifestyle of their inhabitants seems as ancient as the hills.
The arrival of Kamil’s fourth wife, Farida (Marjona Uljayeva), upsets a fragile equilibrium. Older wife Husniya (Ilmira Rahimjanova) has been tenured into a senior, matriarchal role and youngest wife Mahfirat (Sanobar Haqnazarova) does the dogsbody work of fetching water and running errands. Meanwhile, haughty, beautiful Robiya (Yulduz Rajabova) enjoys her position as Kamil’s favorite. Between them there seems to be actual affection, and certainly a current of erotic attraction. But none of them has provided Kamil with an heir. Hence, Farida.
So much is said without words (which is perhaps a blessing: the version provided for review is marred by very substandard English subtitling). A few glances communicate the innate understanding between the wives that Kamil’s childlessness is much more likely due to his infertility than all of theirs. So when Farida, still bearing the bruises from her failed attempt to fend off her new husband, is discovered to be pregnant, the women know immediately that the child is almost certainly not Kamil’s. With Robiya — the film’s most fascinating and fearsome character — already made insecure by Farida, especially given the subtle cues that the new wife comes from a higher social class than the others, and with Farida secretly smuggling letters to an unknown recipient through good-natured Mahfirat, the already uneasy situation becomes a tinderbox.
The craftmanship on display here is breathtaking, but even the most striking compositions are never merely decorative. Take the moment in which Robiya, reflected in a hand-mirror, confronts Farida, who stands meekly shadowed against a wall, while Mahfirat, framed by a doorway in bright daylight, petulantly kicks over the dog’s water bowl, and the dog goes yelping away. Not only is this scene stunning to look at, but in its choreography and spontaneity, in the Kurosawan precision with which the the women are placed relative to each other, it conveys a small encyclopedia of character information too. Similarly, the thrilling hush of Anvar Fayz’s peculiar sound design amplifies the rustling of skirts and veils, the tinkling of heavy earrings and the scuffing of shoes, and so puts us not just close to these women but practically inside their clothes.
The court-intrigue aspects of the plot and the sisterly bonds of affection and rivalry that evolve are reminiscent of both Zhang Yimou’s “Raise the Red Lantern” and Ash Mayfair’s Vietnam-set “The Third Wife.” And some of the later twists have an almost Gothic, “Jane Eyre” quality. But “2000 Songs of Farida” is anything but derivative, and its familial melodrama is lucidly contextualized against a specific backdrop of tectonic geopolitical change. With the simple device of three increasingly destabilizing encounters with the outside world — a khanate official, a military officer and the vanguard of the Soviet army itself all visit this remote enclave — the film cleverly evokes the precise moment when the ripple effect of a revolution finally upends lives far away from the epicenter of the action.
But the balancing act that Tuychiev’s evocative, understated screenplay achieves with such aching beauty is that “2000 Songs of Farida” does not just make the women’s tentative, in some cases reluctant movement toward liberation into an allegory for the end of Russian imperialism and the beginning of the Soviet project. It also does the inverse, making the unseen movements of faraway armies and the winds of ideological revolution sweeping through a territory covering one-sixth of the earth’s land mass, into their own allegory for the warring impulses contained inside a single human heart.