As someone who primarily watches western media, the idea of a film which tells the history of a Muslim majority nation and shows its characters as lovers, the oppressed, and allowing us to see how they fought for their freedom, is rare. So rare I could not help myself and had to watch this. Though, as noted in the review of Fade, “rare doesn’t [always] mean it should be seen as exceptional.”
Characters & Storyline
Within the eve of World War I, we are introduced to two young lovers named Nino (María Valverde) and Ali (Adam Bakri). One is Georgian Orthodox and the other a Shite Muslim and, at times, it seems their relationship is reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. Yet, they avoid the tragedy of fighting families and such issues. In fact, for quite some time they find peace and have a flourishing love. However, with a proclamation of independence from the Russian empire, post-WWI, and the nation of Azerbaijan being oil rich, you knew the peace and joy wouldn’t last. But as for how it all ends for these two lovers, only the film shall reveal that.
History Wrapped Up In a Love Story
Like most Americans, I believe, my knowledge of central Eurasia, also known as the middle east, pretty much ends after Mesopotamia and Egypt were no longer a focus of our history books – in middle school. So if you wanted to learn more you had to seek it out. Which, because our education system doesn’t really gear you toward learning but taking tests, adding onto your course load with information that won’t give you good marks seems like unnecessary stress.
So, with that said, films like this make for a lovely peek into how different parts of the world saw events in history and also you get a taste of a culture and people’s history. For America and the west, World War I was the great war and the punishment of Germany afterwards is what led to the rise of Nazism and eventually World War II. However, this film reveals that for those who were under the then Russian empire’s thumb, World War I provided opportunity.
Being that they were part of the empire, they were expected to fight and so they were trained. They were trained well enough so that when their masters were weak, they could try to exploit said weakness for their gain. Thus leading to one of the first democratic republics of the Muslim world. Much less one which gave equal political rights to women.
Now, if that was the sole thing this movie was about, I must admit I would have probably fallen asleep. After all, this is a period drama and the somber music which goes with the sub-genre really tests your investment in the film. Thankfully, though, Nino and Ali’s story, while seemingly a work of historical fiction, is the spoon full of sugar which helps all the historic context go down.
For honestly, their love story and then the war and tragedies thereafter almost reminds me of Life is Beautiful. Albeit, this film is in no way worthy of major accolades, but the romantic plot does make you swoon a bit. Especially with the way Ali and Noni look at one another.
Positive Depictions of Muslims and Culture
In the western world, especially in films in English, finding diverse depictions of those who are Muslim is rare if not just plain difficult. Like the Russians, and perhaps Chinese to a point, they have been regulated to the roles of villains and foreigners. There is never some sense of normalcy or even the opportunity to see their glorious culture before western politics used the region and its people as a consistent scapegoat to bury the fact the people were just retaliating against our own terrorism of them.
But I digress since this is not that type of blog.
Anyway, one of the things I loved seeing in this film was getting to see and experience a Muslim country’s culture. Seeing the fashion, the architecture, the dancing, and seeing this young couple fall in love. Now, granted, there were some issues due to religious differences, among other things, but ultimately that didn’t get in the way. Also, something I liked seeing was we got to see the upper class and lower class, and the lower class weren’t shown as second class citizens or idiots. They just were people who so happen to not be born into money. Yet, as shown through Nino and Ali when they live amongst them, it doesn’t mean they are any less capable of living happy lives.
It’s Much More Violent Than You Expect
The first fight scene we see in this film is lackluster, but when there are gun fights and everything, it becomes a bit of an eye-opening experience. Not to the point, you are stunned at the violence, at all, but this is where the Life is Beautiful comparison comes in. You are so used to this romantic movie that when things turn violent and familiar characters get killed, it becomes a bit of a rude awakening.
Certain Moments You May Feel Should Have Been More Touching
Ali and Nino are cute, perhaps enviable, but when death becomes a part of their life, and both of their lives get threatened, you don’t get the feeling of being scared for them. Something about the tone of the film, or acting, just feels off when it comes to how this romantic plot fits in with this war to maintain independence. Making it where as people die who we have been introduced to, you just hunch since it wasn’t like you got to form deep and powerful bonds with them. In fact, outside of Nino and Ali, and this character Malik (Riccardo Scamarcio) who leaves quite the impression, you may not remember most of the names of the characters in this movie.
Overall: Mixed (Home Viewing)
I did quite enjoy this film, especially the romance of it and how it tells the history of a country. However, the two don’t mesh that well. On top of that, while the relationship between Nino and Ali is sweet and beautiful, it’s only because it is young, innocent, and we don’t really see them fight. In fact, perhaps the main problem of the whole movie is it doesn’t dive into the complexity of any of its subjects too deep. It doesn’t touch upon, fully, how complicated the history of Azerbaijan was at that point, any complications there would be for someone to marry outside of their faith, much less the difficulty of maintaining an independent nation even with the Treaty of Versailles, among other treaties, which were supposed to support them.
Hence the Mixed label. For while the film does introduce you to a country you may not be familiar with and gives you a taste of their history [note]Which will likely push you to want to understand the country’s history better.[/note], the execution seems off. If only because it seems like a proper balance between this romantic plot piece and portraying history didn’t ultimately mesh well. Thus leaving you with an above average romantic story which uses the history of a nation as not only a backdrop but to try to push some sense of fear that the couple may not survive the times they will and are going through.