Call it a reaction to uncertain times if you want, but fables have been dropping from the sky into Bay Area movie houses lately at a brisk rate. They come in a variety of moods and outlooks, from the populist passion of Slumdog Millionaire and the star-crossed romanticism of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to Let the Right One In, a putative horror item that's really a parable about a lonely boy overcoming his insecurities with the help of an "imaginary" friend who just happens to be a vampire. The best film of 2009 so far is another fable, Henry Selick's Coraline, a carnival of marvels that takes place mostly in an impressionable young girl's mind.
But don't imagine the world has run out of fables. The woods are full of exotic styles of fantasy movie entertainment we don't ordinarily see on American big screens — like, for instance, the Eastern European/Central Asian tale of a young woman named Aya and her frustrated suitor Temelko, the protagonists of filmmaker Veit Helmer's dusty, imaginative yarn Absurdistan, a fable so curious even Benjamin Button might hesitate to tell it.
Beautiful, dark-haired Aya (played by Czech actor Kristyna Malérová) and her bumpkin would-be lover Temelko (Berlin native Max Mauff) are evidently destined for each other. Destiny allows for some mighty quirky behavior, though. After a brief prologue, the opening scene shows Temelko arranging a surprise for his beloved — he's strapped her to a homemade rocket on a hillside and is preparing to shoot her into the sky, as a fulfillment of her stated wish to fly. Suddenly we go into a flashback.
Flashbacks usually act as a narrative device to more fully explain the motivations of the characters and the story's background. No such luck in Absurdistan. German director/co-writer Helmer (Tuvalu, Gate to Heaven) obviously admires the wry character studies and obliquely satirical political comedies of the old Soviet bloc, in which the scenario sneaks up on the "message" on tiptoe, rather than bludgeoning us with point of view. Absurdistan fits that profile. It's a collection of gorgeously composed little vignettes and odd camera shots of eccentric characters in exaggerated poses, held together by the basic premise that, above all else, Aya and Temelko are meant for each other.
In that way it's a perfect example of the village picture, that perennial staple of film festivals in which anything at all can happen — a naked woman on a rooftop in the moonlight, a bullet that never misses its target, a woman's slip that flies through the air with its own mind, a hero single-handedly plugging up a hole in a mountain, anything — as long as it remains within the parameters of the village. In other words, what happens in Absurdistan stays in Absurdistan. The title smacks uncomfortably of Borat-style derisive humor and the villagers are a motley crew of deep-country grotesques (what faces!), but that's the price we have to pay to visit Aya and Temelko's little corner of the world.
At times the proceedings remind us of a Stella Artois beer commercial, or of The Eve of Ivan Kupalo, or even of Jacques Tati or Rube Goldberg. Actions and reactions clank, rattle, and sputter to a stop, but dramatically, accompanied by hypnotic music. Things just happen in no apparent relation to the scenes before or after, and yet the overall effect is of a grand, profoundly generous sphere, spiced with plenty of slapstick humor. We just have to pull back and look at it from the next mountaintop.
Poor Temelko always seems to have one more obstacle between him and Aya. At first it's a four-year waiting period before he can claim his bride, then it's a natural disaster. Like present-day California, the village is gripped by a terrible drought. Worse, the comically antiquated pipeline system that carries water down to the village from its source inside the mountain has a mysterious blockage in it somewhere along the line.
The village menfolk, a group of bulbous boobs, are in no hurry to fix it — they'd rather lounge around in their clubhouse. So the women paint a whitewashed line through the middle of town and call a sex strike. Until the men repair the pipeline and water flows into the village square, there will be no sex. Instead of answering the challenge, the men resort to crazy surrogate ways of satisfying their natural urges, most of them involving spying on the women or infiltrating them in ludicrous drag. One guy manages to sleep in the communal women's quarters in disguise until he's finally rousted. It falls to brave Temelko, the straight man of the piece, to climb the mountain and battle nature in order to restore harmony.
Actor Mauff has a delightfully hayseed appearance, long of nose with tousled hair. We'd peg Temelko for the village idiot if it weren't for his tenacity in pursuit of the lovely Aya. He devises wonderful ways of satisfying her whims, like arranging a "flying carpet" contraption to carry her from the roof of her house, across the village, to his place. The schemes always fall short, however, because Aya is never easy to satisfy. At one point, the arrival of a traveling show starring a voluptuous "Miss Universe" threatens to upset the natural order of Temelko and Aya's pre-ordained romance, but not even the lusty lady and her red-plush, bordello-on-wheels wagon can derail our hero.
Nothing at all absurd about the way the village women call the shots. Aya and her babushka (Nino Chkheidze) may rely on the stars and other arcane methods of divining the future, but when it comes to enforcing their priorities on the menfolk, they're as methodical as the organized peasants in any Dovzhenko film. Of course, the beauteous Aya is a pearl of great price. Temelko may handle her a bit roughly at times (that's the way it's done in Absurdistan), but she's a woman to risk death by drowning for.
Absurdistan, a German production shot on location in Azerbaijan, won a Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, ostensibly for its turbo-whimsical off-handedness. If it's true that a well told fable can do more to illuminate the human condition than the most well-meaning, ham-handed "message picture," the trip to Absurdistan is worth taking, detours and all.
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