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GOCRITIC! Trieste 2019

GoCritic! Review: The Gentle Indifference of the World

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- Our coverage of 30th Trieste Film Festival continues with this review of Kazakhstani film which world-premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard

GoCritic! Review: The Gentle Indifference of the World
Dinara Baktybaeva and Kuandyk Dyussembaev in The Gentle Indifference of the World

"...for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.” With its title borrowed from Camus' novel, The Stranger, the latest effort by Kazakhstani director, Adilkhan Yerzhanov (The Owners), The Gentle Indifference of the World [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Adilkhan Yerzhanov
film profile
]
, which premiered at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section, has recently screened in the Feature Film Competition of the 30th Trieste Film Festival.

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After her father's sudden death, Saltanat (Dinara Baktybaeva) is forced to move from the countryside to a corrupt city to pay off the family's debts and to keep her mother out of prison. Saltanat’s childhood friend and long-time admirer Kuandyk (Kuandyk Dyussembaev) accompanies his crush, determined to look out for her. But neither, in their naivety, could have prepared for the events which follow. Saltanat’s uncle finds a much older man who agrees to marry her and to sort out her financial problems, but she soon finds out that a man's word isn’t worth much in the city. Kuandyk, meanwhile, tries to help his sweetheart, but this only gets him deeper into trouble.

The film’s forté lies in its visual style. Playing skillfully with light and colour, Yerzhanov’s work is pleasing to the eye. The scrubbiness of Saltanat and Kuandyk's room is washed away by the bright light which bursts in through the windows. During a prison scene where Saltanat visits her mother (who has ended up in jail despite her daughter’s many efforts), the director creates an almost otherworldly atmosphere through his use of lighting, accentuating the absurd reality which the characters must contend with. A lawyer hired by Saltanat, meanwhile, comes to the prison to talk about legal costs, a large proportion of which will obviously go towards bribes, all the while decked out in a Hawaiian shirt. This and several other deadpan moments - alongside the mesmerising visual style – help to ease the audience’s discomfort and allow us to follow the tragic events of the film with a slightly lighter heart.

Yerzhanov also employs plenty of symbols in his storytelling. For example, the film starts with an image of blood dripping onto white flowers. It sets the premise for the events to follow, signifying that innocence of the protagonists will be tainted later in the film. Also, for instance, Saltanat changes her prominent red dress for a blue one once she realises the hopelessness of her situation. Though these images are an unexpected source of beauty in a cruel setting, the film can, at times, feel a little overloaded.

The director’s strong focus on the visual aspect of The Gentle Indifference of the World has paid off, but the slow-pace of the story often lacks consistency, which makes it difficult for the audience to empathise with the film’s characters. Furthermore, at a couple of points in the film, the seemingly uneducated Kuandyk - who has been reading Saltanat's books without her knowledge, familiarising himself with the works of great authors, including Camus - offers implausibly deep insights which don’t really fit with his particular brand of naive perceptiveness. These moments feel artificial, which isn’t helped by Yerzhanov’s approach, better suited to the stage than the screen. 

In Camus’ The Stranger, Meursault - whose words have been borrowed for the present film title - accepts that the universe is indifferent to human affairs. In The Gentle Indifference of the World, it is the city which has no care for its inhabitants. Different rules apply in this heartless environment. Effort and determination count for nothing where money and power reign supreme. Our two outsiders, Saltanat and Kuandyk, do their best to challenge the status quo, but they don’t stand a chance of beating the system.

This article was written as part of GoCritic! training programme.

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