Issue 41 (2013)

Murad Ibragimbekov: There was Never a Better Brother (I ne bylo luchshe brata, 2010)

reviewed by Mila Nazyrova © 2013

luchshe-brataThe film There was Never a Better Brother is based on the novel of the same title by the famous Azerbaijani writer Maksud Ibragimbekov. The novel was adapted for the screen by Murad Ibragimbekov and Pavel Finn. The film begins with a visually rich flashback sequence in a women’s bathhouse. The mother, pregnant with his younger brother, leads the six-year-old Dzhalil through a space populated with women of various forms, shapes and sizes, the femininity of the bodies underscored by complete nudity. The women do not leave their places and their static position (as if they were a landscape or a pattern) is emphasized by the energetic movements of the camera rapidly tracking between and around them. Most of the women are sedentary, absorbed in their bathhouse routine, performing their small movements as if the entire place were a gigantic beehive. Against this background of the collective female body, two women stand out by moving around and interacting with the boy protagonist. They are the ones who will play major roles in his life: the mother, who led him here, and the young bathhouse attendant, who takes him from his mother and bathes him. A voiceover by the adult Dzhalil reveals that she has been the only true love of his life.

The theme of powerful femininity continues with the image of the bees in a scene that recurs throughout the film showing Dzhalil (Sergei Puskepalis) in the film’s “present tense” tending to a beehive in his backyard. The bees—simultaneously benign and lethally dangerous—are a collective body just like the women in the bathhouse. They constitute a perfect social organization, a kin group led by the female power of the queen mother; and the protagonist believes in their infallible moral sense: they never attack those who are morally healthy but only sting those who are not calm, who are angry and evil. This belief, presented as a kind of unquestioned traditional wisdom, sets out a mythic taboo whose violation will be as fatal as it is in the myth of Oedipus. It is pretty obvious from the beginning of the film that this taboo will in time be violated by the protagonist—who will become disturbed and angry. Everything he will be punished for is foreshadowed by the overtly Oedipal opening: his claim to the dead father’s role (in another childhood flashback he tells his brother: “You are like a son to me”), the imminent danger of the birth of the competitor, and the Oedipal hatred eventually projected onto him.

The two symbolic themes of the beginning are combined in the core conflict of the film. After many years, when Dzhalil is an adult married man, he falls in love with a young woman who looks to him exactly like his childhood love (and played by the same actress, Nino Ninidze). This love, which unseals his subconscious, is fatal to his calm as a confidently righteous man, and ultimately to his life. Most importantly, his relationship with his beloved brother undergoes a tragic mutation: deep brotherly love turns into a devastating hatred in the competition for the young woman.

Although the audience is not at all surprised, the intrusion of evil into the world of his loved ones catches the protagonist totally unawares. In his lifestyle, Dzhalil tends to marry traditional mores with an idealized Soviet morality: for him, to be good means to be honest, to love his family and help his neighbors. He lives a materially ascetic life, satisfied with his small salary, readily devotes himself to his work and is repulsed by any notion of violating the mores he chooses to live by. The film eventually brings us to the understanding that his whole system of values hinges on illusions, on a denial of reality and his true feelings. He lacks any awareness of the actual motives or actions of the people around him, including his brother and the regional prosecutor (the author of the maxim about the bees’ moral sense). Nevertheless Dzhalil proves unable to move beyond his illusions and his death could be viewed as his symbolic choice to remain ignorant of reality.   

luchshe brataThe story, whose main content is the unmasking of the protagonist’s hidden inner conflict, is fast-paced, simplistic, and straightforward: not much suspense is generated here. In leading up to the resolution of the mythic taboo it compresses significant chunks of time and omits details, side plots, and character development. At the same time, the interpretation of events can be unclear and, even given the fact that memory is often foggy and vague, the storytelling in the film is at times confusing. As the main plot begins—some time in the 1970s (the date is never mentioned, but we can tell from the models of the cars)—the younger brother Simurg (Evgenii Tsyganov) is away in the North working as a truck driver. He had to leave his native town, a small place in Azerbaijan, because he was about to be prosecuted for beating up a man. However, both brothers believe that although he was breaking the law, he was right to do so because he was trying to avenge a woman and punish the man who had slapped her face. The older brother makes a plea to the all-powerful prosecutor, and the charges are dropped. It is not quite clear from the film whether this version of the events is supposed to be accepted without question in the diegetic world of the film or if Dzhalil is naive in failing to question it. We might also ask whether the response (criminal assault) outweighs the offense (the slap). There may even be an underside to this story, since we later discover that the younger brother is not as law-abiding as the elder would like to think and the prosecutor takes bribes. We may suspect that the prosecutor may have had other reasons (besides Dzhalil’s efforts) for letting the younger brother off, and that the revenge story may have been made up in order to hide the truth from the elder brother. 

After being cleared, the younger brother stays in the North for a while claiming that he enjoys the hard work, the severe conditions, and the solitude. That makes the elder brother quite satisfied by his behavior but does not look completely convincing to us. Eventually, the younger brother almost dies next to his truck in a snowstorm, but is saved. Again, it is not quite clear how it happens that he was on the road during the storm, how his rescuers were informed and found him and whether he had tried to commit suicide before they arrived since he had taken all four wheels off his truck. The hypothetical suicide might have been connected with the aborted court case but we are never given the details.

In the meantime, the older brother works at the post office and tends to his bees. He lives with his wife and his old mother, who dreams about the younger brother's return and in senile forgetfulness keeps telling one and the same story of her honeymoon in Kislovodsk. Dzhalil is the calm one, and he is down to earth in every sense: he both lives a simple and sober life and gets energy directly from the earth. This is shown in a bizarre image, as he stands with feet firmly on the ground, arms down and head up, eyes gazing skyward (the stereotypical posture of the “ordinary” person about to transform into his or her superhero guise or of the characters in energy drink commercials) and waves of energy visibly surge through his body. 

Dzhalil’s love story begins when a new family moves in next door. They are carrying in their furniture when he passes by and his attention is drawn by a mirror in which he sees the reflection of the girl from the bathhouse. The mirror shatters and the image of the past is replaced by the present reality. The neighbor’s exquisitely beautiful daughter Dilber then appears to Dzhalil, a perfect look-alike of his childhood love.

In the next sequence the neighbor girl starts to flirt with Dzhalil, and it is not completely clear whether she wants to use him to get a job at the post office or if she is just a natural-born predator who instinctively pursues any male within range. We find out that she comes from an “bad” (in traditional terms) family: her father is a drunkard and a bully and her mother is promiscuous. More than once in the film various characters suggest that the girl cannot differ from the mother. Despite his moral disapproval of the entire family, Dzhalil, almost as in a socialist realist film, acts as the agent for the girl’s moral re-birth and helps her to get a job at the local historical museum. Although his motive, in his own mind, might be his wish to prevent her from sinking deeper, it is clear at this point that he is in love with the girl. At this point, however, she stops flirting with him, and there is a hint that being usefully employed has improved the girl’s morality in both the traditional and the Soviet understanding of the term. In a humorous scene, the whole family comes to the post office with a big bunch of red carnations, and both the father and the girl, mixing Soviet rhetoric and traditional courtesy, congratulate Dzhalil on Postal Worker Day, and thank him as their benefactor. He notices that the actual holiday is a month off, but expresses his pleasure that the girl is now going in the right direction. However, he strongly refuses to accept the gift they bring him (an expensive looking tea-pot), thus staying within the bounds of Soviet ritual when it interferes with traditional etiquette.

At some point after the beginning of the romance, the younger brother gets arrested. His
employer, the tycoon, promises to take care of everything. While Simurg is under arrest, Dzhalil rushes to the prosecutor and tries to convince him that his brother’s fatherless childhood is to be blamed for his faults. He slowly extends his hand into the window of the prosecutor’s car and offers him a small jar of pure amber-colored honey, the only bribe he can force himself to give; and after a moment of suspense the prosecutor smiles and takes it. Later the tycoon meets the prosecutor in his car and bribes him to remove the charges against Simurg. The older brother, unlike the audience, will never know that the real reason for his brother’s liberation had nothing to do with his plea to the prosecutor or his jar of honey.

At this point the brother’s part, and the downfall of the elder brother begins. Simurg finds a risky but well-paid job with a lot of benefits on an oil rig.  Dzhalil tries to force him to leave town and to break up with Dilber because she comes from a bad family: associating with her and her family is shameful; she is the offspring of a whore and will probably end up like her mother. The bees begin to act strangely and show signs of aggressiveness; and the suspenseful music that pedantically accompanies every beekeeping scene sounds more and more like bees humming. Simurg announces that he is going to marry Dilber and Dzhalil forces him to move out of their house. In the final sequence, Simurg’s wedding is celebrated next door behind the fence on the side where Dzhalil keeps his beehive. Dzhalil pokes a hole in the fence and looks through it. He sees the love of his life as the bathhouse girl dancing at her wedding in the past and then he is in the present again, watching the neighbor girl dancing with his brother. In a poignant mime scene he starts dancing alone on his side of the fence and with an appearance of cold frenzy, keeps repeating: “Nenavizhu!” (“I hate [you]!”). The scene is intercut with shots of the bees swarming with a menacingly hum. Attracted by his movements, the bees fly over to him and cover his body. There’s a cut to a flashback of little Simurg looking down and calling his brother. In the next, very high angle shot, Dzhalil is prostrate on the ground, face up, with bees all over his face, chest, and genitals. The paroxysm of hatred and the bee attack (which is probably a punishment the protagonist inflicts upon himself) form the film’s climax and also its finale: the story has no denouement. It ends abruptly and, after the myth-bound death of the protagonist, we find out nothing about the fate of the other characters. There is just one last flashback— a childhood scene showing Dzhalil as a boy moving away from Simurg, which artlessly suggests that Dzhalil has died.

There was Never a Better Brother features interesting visual effects and beautiful imagery, sometimes resembling the films of Sergei Paradjanov and Tengiz Abuladze in its choice of picturesque views and locations. However, the film’s many shortcomings interfere with an appreciation of its visual style. The simplistic story-line, its combination of predictability and lack of clarity, the absence of interesting plot twists, and the total lack of character development makes watching it pretty boring. The music (Aleksei Aigi) is naively suspenseful and disturbingly monotonous. The dialog is shallow, pointless, and poorly written, and visibly hard for the actors to render without sounding unnatural. The main male actors adopt a naturalistic acting style, often using everyday intonations and facial expressions, which clash with the overtly theatrical and affected manner of the remaining cast (especially the female lead). In addition to unprofessional casting and acting, the story provides no explanation of why the brothers’ features are Slavic (although they were born in an ethnically Azerbaijani environment and why they don't speak Russian with an accent like the other characters do.

Mamedov’s film is an attempt to create a multifaceted and enigmatic world by mixing reality, memory, and mythic symbolism in the style established by Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003)—but since the director’s control over the various elements of the film is so weak and rudimentary, the attempt was unfortunately bound to fail. 

Mila Nazyrova
Ohio State University

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There was Never a Better Brother, Azerbaijan, 2010
Color, 90 min.
Director: Murad Ibragimbekov
Scriptwriter: Pavel Finn, Murad Ibragimbekov
Director of Photography: Ivan Gudkov
Music: Aleksei Aigi
Cast: Nino Ninindze, Sergei Puskepalis, Evgenii Tsyganov
Producers: Murad Ibragimbekov, David Shufutinskii, Aleksandr Shvydkoi
Production: “Ibrus,” “Azerbaijanfilm,” “Miramar”

Murad Ibragimbekov: There was Never a Better Brother (I ne bylo luchshe brata, 2010)

reviewed by Mila Nazyrova © 2013