Issue 23 (2009)

Farid Gumbatov: Caucasia (Kavkaz, Azerbaijan/Russia, 2007)

reviewed by Julie Christensen © 2009

In Farid Gumbatov's Oscar-nominated Caucasia, a Russian beauty named Sofia (Liubov' Tolkalina-Konchalovskaia) boards a train with her mother-in-law Maria (Ada Rogovtseva) for a very sentimental journey home, leaving the Caucasus forever. Flashbacks fill us in on their past: Sofia's wedding (the radiant bride, the luxurious garden, the handsome sea captain Andrei, Andrei's mother Maria, Russian friends, neighbors, musicians, and a gypsy fortune teller); later, sunshine and citrus, holy mountains, the craggy seashore follow as well as passionate trysts on Andrei's freighter when he and his crew come in to port; invitations to neighbors' houses—fighting cocks, Georgian longevity, Azeri melodies, legends of romance, gypsy songs and fortune-telling, fast cars, Caucasian drums, beautiful women, and the Orthodox church in the middle of Baku. And then, as we read on the DVD jacket and all blurbs on the film, WAR comes to the Caucasus. Andrei and his crew disappear without a trace, and everything changes. Maria, Sofia, and her friend Julia sit on the seashore in fear and weep: “Meetings, strikes, terrorism… People have lost all that is holy. They have become animals, worse than animals. The human rabble will destroy and devour everything in its path—generals, academicians. Everyone becomes a slave.” After 14 years of waiting, even Maria and Sofia leave their former paradise, on the “Kavkaz-Moscow” train that will lead Sofia to her new fate and new love: Aleksandr (Sasha), a photojournalist on assignment returning to Moscow (played by Andrei Chernyshev, popular among Baku viewers from the TV serial Twins).

Azeri reviewers and bloggers read Gumbatov's choice of popular Russian screen and television stars for his run for an Oscar as strategic: Azerbaijan has had no entry for the Oscars, and his film had to pass either a Russian or Turkish jury. However, the “Russian” and, in fact, “Soviet” theme lies at the core of this film: “We were so happy then,” Sofia tells Sasha. “Life was so good in the Caucasus in the time of the ‘Union'.”

Gumbatov calls his film a “philosophical parable.” From the opening sequence of the film, as Sasha's parents react to his proposed trip—“To the Caucasus? What Caucasus? In the Caucasus they shoot, they blow things up...” and his response, “The Caucasus will one day be ‘a great country'”—to the train station “Kavkaz” (nowhere to be found in the schedules of trains between Volgograd and Moscow, or Moscow and Baku), Gumbatov's film presents an idealized dream, the “imagined geography” that was the Russian Orient—a land of wine, women and song, and 70 nations with their own traditions. Like the space of the film, time is also iconic, and biographies defy a realistic timeline. The “older generation” (first Maria, then an unnamed, much-decorated veteran fortuitously sharing a coupé with Sasha) span the years between WWII and “the present day.” Maria carries the message of friendship of peoples: “Everyone was so good to me in the Caucasus, to a Russian woman.” The old war veteran played by Azeri actor Anver Veliev cites core values of “the Caucasus” to instruct the young: he tells Sasha to marry and to delight in the beauty of a woman in love; he tells his countryman (the avenger) to “go home, sow, plow, tend to your land, and seek the enemy among yourselves.” It is the old man who brings the Soviet theme home: “We are all on one train.” He looks at Sasha's photographs, then reaches for his album of his youth and his days during the war: “You might as well throw your photographs into the trash. But my pictures—my past, will go down in history.... He tells Sasha that he fought under Chuikov, “all together against the Fascists. Until you appreciate that, you will understand nothing.” The film closes on a shot, through the train window, of the monumental statue, “The Motherland Calls” (Mat' rodiny zovet) at Mamaev kurgan, Volgograd, commemorating those who fell defending Stalin's city. A feat of Soviet engineering, conceived under Stalin, designed under Khrushchev, and finally dedicated under Brezhnev, the 82-meter-high mother with her sword raised is an epiphany for the war veteran, who, with tears in his eyes, says, “I will be rejoining you.” And a young man (Gumbatov) wishes him a Happy Anniversary… with fireworks around Mamaev kurgan, the film closes with a tribute to the 60 th anniversary of the battle at Stalingrad.

 

Rather a fairy tale rather than a parable, Caucasia should please all those nostalgic for the old Empire, and the days when Caucasians were warriors of principle, and peoples of the Union fought together against a common enemy, when a very beautiful young woman named Sofia, an artist and designer, could walk through the streets of the city, any Caucasian city, the object of all desire, devoured by the gaze of the other, yet left untouched and oblivious, before the Caucasus were “emptied, and ruined by provocateurs, terrorists, and bombs, where even the train routes have been changed, and the road to Russia cut off.”

Costumes and sets by Rufat Guliev, aerial shots of the snow-capped peaks and the dramatic seashore by Telman Mamedov and a film crew supported by the British, make the film a rich visual experience. And the music by Rauf Aliev adds to the sense of retro. And there are endless shots of the gorgeous, photogenic Liubov' Tolkalina. A quick look at films playing in Moscow in December 2008 listed the superstar in 18 venues.

Gumbatov's film premiered at the Baku movie theatre in Moscow on March 6, 2008, as well as in Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine, and other locations in North America and in Asia. Ironically, the major movie house in Baku, the Azerbaijan, refused to screen the film that night.

 

Julie Christensen
George Mason University

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Caucasia, Russia/Azerbaijan 2007
90 minutes, colour
Director and Screenplay: Farid Gumbatov
DoP: Yuri Vornovsky, Telman-Mamedov
Art Direction: Rufat Kuliev
Costumes: Zyumrud Mirzzalieva
Sound: Gleb Kravetsky
Editing: Alla Miakotina
Composers: Rauf Aliev, Emin Sabitogly
Cast: Ada Rogovtseva (Maria); Liubov’ Tolkalina (Sofia); Andrei Chernyshov (Aleksandr/Sasha); Anver Veliev (war veteran); Milana Mardakhanova (Iuliia)
Website: http://filmcaucasia.com

Farid Gumbatov: Caucasia (Kavkaz, Azerbaijan/Russia, 2007)

reviewed by Julie Christensen © 2009

Updated: 08 Jan 09