At the Movies: Azerbaijan’s ‘Ali and Nino’ Depicts Sugar-Sweet Caucasus
A screen adaptation of the South Caucasus’ famous love story, Ali and Nino, promoted by the Azerbaijani government, strikes many local viewers more as a travel commercial for Azerbaijan than as a faithful reenactment of the most enigmatic book to come out of this region in the past century.
Set during the Russian Empire’s twilight years, British director Ali Kapadia’s new take on Kurban Said’s 1937 novel follows the story of a passionate relationship between a spirited, young Muslim nobleman from Azerbaijan, Ali Khan Shirvanshir, and a Christian aristocrat, Nino Kipiani, from neighboring Georgia.
In the original novel, Ali Khan Shirvanshir’s choice for a wife echoes, as Said puts it, Azerbaijan’s own choice between “progressive Europe and reactionary Asia.” Shirvanshir, for instance, agrees that his wife will not have to wear a veil, yet his father initially objects to the wedding as unsuitable for a Muslim man.
But in the movie, the gaping cultural divide between the two star-crossed lovers (played by Palestinian actor Adam Bakri and Spanish actress Maria Velverde ) is reduced to a few cherry-picked, zingy one-liners. Shirvanshir's cunning Armenian friend Melik Nachararyan ("a fat man with sheep's eyes"), who, in the book, kidnaps Kipiani and is killed by Shirvanshir, becomes a debonair, decent man (played by Italian actor Riccardo Scamarcio), struggling to reconcile his love for Kipiani with his loyalty to his Azeri friend.
Viewers at one movie theater in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, the fictional Nino Kipiani’s hometown, felt they were left with a syrupy, placid melodrama.
“It is a beautifully shot film with terribly stale dialogue and acting,” commented Maya Natsvlishvili, a media consultant and movie aficionado. “I enjoyed reading the novel and was looking forward to watching the film, but it was quite disappointing, despite the media hype.”
Most of that media hype has come from Azerbaijan. First Daughter Leyla Aliyeva served as the film’s executive producer, and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva attended its October premiere in Baku.
Leyla Aliyeva is not known to have a background in cinema, but she does serve as deputy chairperson of the deep-pocketed Heydar Aliyev Foundation, headed by her mother. The Foundation’s donations generally run in parallel to government policy or PR aims.
President Aliyev’s administration has long promoted Azerbaijan abroad, particularly in the European Union and United States, as a predominantly Muslim country with a deep tradition of religious and ethnic tolerance. With its message about cross-cultural love, the film, to some Azerbaijani officials, reinforces that theme.
But whether the Heydar Aliyev Foundation footed the bill for its completion is unknown. Azerbaijan’s state oil-and-gas company SOCAR paid for its distribution in neighboring Georgia, however.
For Georgians, Ali and Nino is first and foremost a love story; one that inspired mobile sculptures of a man and woman in Georgia’s Black Sea city of Batumi.
In the case of Ekaterine Gamakharia, a young Georgian development professional married to an Azerbaijani, it brings her own experiences to mind. “Like Nino, I did have to think if I could accept cultural and religious differences, integrate into Muslim society . . .” commented Gamakharia. “But, in the end, I did not have to sacrifice much as I ended up in a very liberal, welcoming environment.”
Both Gamakharia and her husband, Caucasus analyst Tabib Huseynov, say they are looking forward to the film, but question whether it will hold true to the book.
Georgian art critics generally have ignored the film, which they saw as a pet project of the Azerbaijani government. “I watched the trailer and got only reaffirmed in my conviction that governments should never do arts; especially historical dramas,” commented one critic, who asked not to be named.
The movie does boast the full tapestry of the Caucasus mountains’ majestic scenery, but, for this reviewer as well, is a bit overbearing. Whatever the protagonists do -- fetch water or share a kiss -- it occurs against a postcard-perfect backdrop of marvelous snowy peaks.
One Azerbaijani arts and culture writer scoffed at “what vaguely” resembles “dances native to the region,” saying that it prompted a smile “one might have while watching foreign friends and acquaintances trying to keep up at [Azerbaijani] weddings.”
Then, there are all the tired tropes employed to validate a Caucasus story for a Western audience: “Where East meets West” or “crossroads of the worlds.”
“I could not rid myself of the feeling that I was watching an historic documentary on the Discovery Channel or the BBC,” Azerbaijani film critic Kamran Rzayev remarked to Oxu.az.
Aside from any aim to promote Azerbaijan, this could have to do with director Kapadia’s own background as an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker.
“A skilled, artful way with nonfiction storytelling is no guarantee of success in the fictional realm,” wrote film critic Robert Abele for The Los Angeles Times recently. “British director Asif Kapadia is proving a case study of that with his simplistic, airless World War I romance Ali and Nino.”
Initially published in Vienna, Ali and Nino arrived in Azerbaijan only after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. It became an iconic read amidst an era of national awakening similar to that described in the novel.
“This was like a shocking recollection of memories of stormy youth by a man who suffered memory loss for 70 years [the period of Soviet rule over Azerbaijan],” Rzayev said of the work.
Nonetheless, though Rzayev, like other Azerbaijani critics, enjoyed the film overall, he missed the book’s many layers. The 1918 birth of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic, the world’s first Muslim democracy, for instance, receives only “perfunctory” attention, he objected.
The movie’s “foreign director,” he complained, “took the adapted screenplay and only touched the surface of the novel, a love story, and didn’t go into the depths . . .the essence of the novel.”
This reviewer can only agree.