August 27, 2009

Absurdistan

Review by Aaron Hillis (originally appeared on GreenCine Daily)

Absurdistan

Absurdistan
Directed by Veit Helmer
2008, 90 minutes, In Russian with English subtitles

First Run Features

Heterosexually speaking, one of the greatest manipulative powers women have had over men since perhaps the dawn of time is the ability to withhold sex. From Aristophanes' ancient comedy Lysistrata (about a battle between the sexes that erupts after the women of Greece lock up their chastity belts in protest of the Peloponnesian War) to the Kenyan women's activist groups who even got prostitutes to take part in a sex strike this past April, this practice has long been effective, and deftly illustrates how foolish and base we men can be. While Veit Helmer's bawdy burlesque Absurdistan seems, at first glance, like a fanciful folktale reimagining of Lysistrata, it's actually based upon a real-life Turkish incident that the Tuvalu director had read about in a 2001 newspaper article.

Absurdistan

"When God divided up the peoples of the earth, so the legend goes, he wanted to keep the most beautiful corner of the world for himself. He was angry, because our people's emissaries arrived late, after all the land had been distributed. But because they were of such cheerful disposition he bestowed on my ancestors the most beautiful piece of land of all and withdrew into the heavens instead..."

The introductory narration in Absurdistan poetically describes the tumbledown, 14-family desert village where the film takes place, a tiny blip between Europe and Asia that was "occupied in succession by Persians, Tatars, Ottomans and Seldschuks," but now forgotten by the maps and everyone else. The community's youngest—tough-minded beauty Aya (Kristyna Malérová) and impulsive romantic Temelko (Maximilian Mauff)—were born in the same room on the same day, and have known they were soul mates since they got married as grade-schoolers. But when puberty hits, Temelko mutates into the same horny monster the other men have become, a bunch of lazy chest-thumpers who constantly feel the need to prove their virility.

Absurdistan
But then the water pipeline that feeds into the village suddenly dries up, and as the men are too slothful to fix it, the women close their legs in retaliation, leading to a knock-down war between the genders. Lines are literally drawn (with barbed wire laid out!), and the newly emasculated men are continually thwarted in their not-clever-enough espionage: infiltrating the enemy in drag, escaping together on a bus, even attempting to secretly take out their frustrations on the poor sheep. As the women become an immovable force of gun-toting banditas, poor Temelko is grouped in with "the enemy" even when his passion for Aya is more loving than lusty. Is she not impressed with his homemade, manned rockets and cabled bathtubs that hover above the village by his donkey-wheel-cranked ingenuity?

Whimsy is the word, even if words themselves have little place in what's almost a silent comedy—movement and expressions are the common formal through line. (Helmer hired casting directors in 28 countries, and of the 2,400 actors seen, he clearly picked his cast not only on their abilities, but for their gloriously idiosyncatic mugs.) It's a simplistic, straightforward tale that's beautifully staged with the same wave of the magical-realism wand that powers Jeunet & Caro's Delicatessen (especially in its contraptions and rhythmic montages) and every Emir Kusturica film I've ever seen (fitting, as co-writer Gordan Mihic also worked on Kusturica's Black Cat, White Cat). Absurdistan has the kind of droll, ceaseless charm that can mesmerize you into a permanent grin (well, me anyway), so even when the sexual metaphors of plugging holes and discharge become eye-rollingly blunt, you'll still ask for a cigarette afterwards.



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Posted by cphillips at August 27, 2009 4:12 PM

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