Before chance and circumstance turned the Venice Film Festival into a full-blown Oscar campaign stop where the likes of JOKER, THE SHAPE OF WATER and LA LA LAND dominate the competition lineup and Hollywood A-listers land on Lido en masse vying for spotlight, it used to be known rather for its austere, high-minded programming. This is not meant to be a disparaging comment because I do believe good films come in all shapes and sizes. It is a pity, however, when daring, unconventional voices get crowded out of a prominent platform by studio offerings that would arrive in thousands of cinemas in two weeks’ time anyway.
In that sense, the relative lack of “names” this year due to the pandemic can be seen as an opportunity for Venice to turn its focus back on more obscure, challenging works of world cinema. One fine example is Azerbaijani filmmaker Hilal Baydarov’s soulful, haunting second narrative feature IN BETWEEN DYING, which landed a coveted slot in the competition lineup.
Appropriate to its name, the film is structured along a series of deaths. The protagonist Davud, a somewhat lost young man who lives with his sick mother in Baku, accidentally kills someone during a weed deal with the “Doctor”, a mysterious local mobster/spiritual leader. The Doctor sends three men to track down the fleeing Davud and thus begins a dreamlike journey that spurs reflections on good and evil, the moral imperative to act, and the purpose of existence.
That might sound a little far-fetched, and indeed the road-movie setup of the film initially does seem a bit at odds with its deep philosophical concerns. But at some point you realize that the protagonist’s odyssey is entirely inward, and the broader genre elements used in the storytelling start to take on a mystic, fable-like quality. In the first segment of the episodic film (complete with title cards and introductory notes), Davud tries to shake his pursuers by hiding in a barn. There he runs into a rabid girl who’s been imprisoned by her father for years. When the father arrives to confront the intruder, the girl takes advantage of the confusion and bites her captor to death. All this takes place within five minutes, which Baydarov films with an unperturbed placidity that borders on the absurd. The sense of watching something surreal unfold continues when the chasers arrive on the bloody scene after Davud’s escape. Instead of hurrying after their target or expressing shock at the gruesome parricide, they muse about coincidence and justice with breezy composure.
From there things get even more elusive still. Over the course of the next hour, Davud encounters an abused wife, a runaway bride, a lonesome girl waiting for her dead husband, before he returns home to his mother. In each case he sets free a tragic tale of love and longing that makes him question the point of his quest anew. It’s a lot of soul-searching, philosophizing, wandering and gazing that will not appeal to everybody but I found myself drawn to the pure, ravishingly poetic vision of the filmmaker and struck by the everyday miseries from a part of the world I know so little about.
If nothing else, IN BETWEEN DYING is gorgeous to look at. Baydarov composes grand, panoramic images that bring out the overwhelming majesty of nature and the triviality of human endeavors. Shot by DP Elshan Abbasov in dazzling contrast of light and shadow, views of the horizon, open fields or ancient trees envelop you with such pristine grace you can’t help but fall into a meditative, awestruck daze. In these moments even Davud’s more hackneyed proclamations like “Everything is love” burn with the glow of true epiphanies. It makes sense that Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas, who also sees the divine (or the evil) in life’s banalities, is a co-producer on the film. But a readier reference might be Malick, if you can imagine THE TREE OF LIFE or TO THE WONDER as an Azerbaijan-set western about an unwitting hero on the run.
As I suggested, Baydarov’s stylized direction (including the stilted staging, dense narration and freely associative editing) takes some getting used to, but in the end it comes together for me. I find there to be a deeply thoughtful core to the film that has a lot to say about the unseen tragedies in our world, especially cruelty against women, and our moral obligation to uncover them. The young filmmaker tells a hypnotically spiritual tale in a way that feels both lyrical and personal.
This concludes our limited coverage of the 77th Venice Film Festival which sadly did not include any vaporetto, aperol spritz, or will win/should win pieces. Let’s hope next year it’ll be a return to Lido so I can complain about the stress and exhaustion again.