With Ali Khamraev's films, it's wait and see

MFA highlights works in 'Uzbek Rhapsody'

Two sheepherding brothers fight for the attention of a Western woman in Ali Khamraev’s “Bo Ba Bu.’’ Two sheepherding brothers fight for the attention of a Western woman in Ali Khamraev’s “Bo Ba Bu.’’ (Seagull Films)
By Gerald Peary
Globe Correspondent / February 13, 2011

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Is Ali Khamraev one of the world’s more neglected filmmakers because he comes from the obscure Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan, formerly a republic of the Soviet Union? Or is he just a good director rather than a significant one, not someone to be compared to his genius peers such as Russia’s Alexander Tarkovsky, who had been his friend, or Georgia’s Sergei Parajanov, whose works he emulates? On the basis of the three films available for advanced screening from the MFA’s six-film series, “Uzbek Rhapsody: The Films of Ali Khamraev’’ (Feb. 18-27), the jury is out.

First, a bit about Khamraev. He was born in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent in 1934 (or 1937, depending on the source). In 1961, he graduated from Moscow’s VGIK film school, also attended by Tarkovsky, Parajanov, and, later, Aleksandr Sokurov. He returned to Uzbekistan where, starting in 1966, he made a series of features, most of them artistically acclaimed, and one, “The Seventh Bullet’’ (1972), an international hit with 22 million viewers.

Khamraev managed to get films financed quite regularly under the communist state. But he’s been almost silenced since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, when Uzbekistan, chronically impoverished, became independent. Why not solicit foreign venture capitalists? Khamraev, speaking several years ago at a New York film conference: “The investors want to give you the money in the morning, sleep with the actresses in the afternoon, and get a 100 percent profit by evening.’’ These days, the septuagenarian filmmaker lives in Moscow and is involved in TV miniseries. In the 1990s he had moved to Italy for a time, seeking Western European financing for his projects. In 1998, he lured Arielle Dombasle, the glamorous star of Eric Rohmer’s “Pauline at the Beach,’’ back to Uzbekistan for a French co-production, “Bo Ba Bu.’’ It’s Khamraev’s only feature in the last 22 years.

“Bo Ba Bu’’ is where the MFA Khamraev series begins, Feb. 18 and 19. In an unnamed dreamscape country, a woman (Dombasle) who is blond and obviously Western lies injured in the desert, as if dropped from the sky. She’s rescued, sort of, by Bo and Ba, two grunting, barely speaking sheepherders. She’s abused, repeatedly raped, and locked up under a burka and veil. Meanwhile, this woman they call “Bu’’ remains mute and passive. Is “Bo Ba Bu’’ as some maintain, a valiant woman’s picture, dramatizing the horrible place of females in the world? Or is it exploitative itself, even soft-core pornographic, with its bodice-ripper sequences uncovering again and again Dombasle’s shapely breasts and body? Whatever, the doings of the trio get tiresome. “Bo Ba Bu’’ is not a great film.

On the other hand, “The Seventh Bullet,’’ Feb. 19 and 20, is lively, energetic entertainment, a period political drama in which a communist message is wrapped inside a crackerjack Red western. The Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns of the 1960s were immensely popular in the Soviet Union, and Khamraev made his own wide-screen version using the vistas of Uzbekistan: mountains, streams, eroding walled-in towns. His hero, with the weasel eyes of Lee Van Cleef and the manic laugh of Toshiro Mifune, is a Red commandant in 1920s Uzbekistan, going after the Muslim troops who’ve deserted him. What are the politics about? The perennial problem of the communists in Uzbekistan, convincing the overwhelmingly Muslim populace that its first allegiance should be to the socially enlightened Marxist state, not Allah.

The amazing popularity in Eastern countries of “The Seventh Bullet’’ has almost everything to do with a cool hero and cleverly staged battles and little to do with its Leninist ideology. Also, there’s something here, from a fashion-obsessed Western vantage, that is culturally remarkable: The bewitching Muslim heroine of the movie, fought over by the good and bad, has braids . . . and a mustache.

“White, White Storks’’ (1966), Feb. 24 and 25, was Khamraev’s first feature, and it definitely showed a filmmaker of formidable talent. It’s set in a sequestered Muslim village in the mountains where the old ways reign. The heroine is a smart woman in an unhappy marriage to a stubborn traditionalist. She falls hard for a sensitive, soft-spoken guy who makes a mission of defending local women when their men abuse them. Unfortunately, there’s no possibility for divorce in such a town, where blood revenge still prevails, and where there’s no local communist to set things right. The demonstrative camera style here is traditionally Russian, lyrical, emotional, melodramatic, in tune with a tale of longing and heartbreak.

Again, how important a filmmaker is Khamraev? A fair assessment depends on seeing the MFA films that were unavailable for preview: “Without Fear’’ (1971), Feb. 24 and 25; “Triptych’’ (1978), Feb. 26 and 27; and most essential, “Man Follows Birds’’ (1975), also Feb. 26 and 27. The last, in homage to Parajanov, is considered by many critics to be Khamraev’s masterpiece, a visionary work of folkloric surrealism, swimming in sensual color dream sequences. It sounds amazing.

Gerald Peary can be reached at gpeary

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