TIFF: ‘Stranger’ is admirable but uninviting

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Famine. War. Death. The premise of Yermek Tursunov’s lastest film Stranger, probably won’t send you skipping merrily out of the theaters. Recounting one of the most turbulent periods in Kazakhstan’s history, this parable about Soviet era strife brings the struggle to vivid life.

Stranger is is the story of a man named Ilya, whose epic journey begins in the 1930s. During this time of extreme famine in the Kazakh steppes, he becomes orphaned when his father is taken by the Soviets during a systematic purge. Forced to fend for himself, he retreats to the mountains to live among the wolves. For years he remains there in a mountain cave, until the war begins to encroach on his solitude. But Ilya, now a grown man, rejects the changing lifestyle in the plains down below and refuses to enlist, causing a rift between him and the villagers. When he tries to connect with beloved friends from his childhood – an old man named Ybrai and sweetheart Kamshut – he realizes that he’s now treated as a stranger in his own homeland, and even worse, a traitor.

Like scenes from The Great Depression, Tursunov emphasizes Ilya’s struggle from the first scene. In conversation with his father, he learns of the unsavory sources of meat that people have resorted to in order to survive. As they bond over their latest meal of roasted rodent, the incredulous young Ilya wonders if cannibalism is the next step. His father replies that such a practice would be sub-human but is merely reflective of their harsh reality.

Indeed, the world which Tursunov portrays makes the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath seem almost affluent in comparison. A feeling of doom and gloom pervades throughout, as the cinematography envelopes you with a visceral sense of place. The blindingly white snow is as prominent as its human characters, a constant reminder of the suffocating crops underneath. But although its sweeping vistas recall David Lean, this is cinema stripped bare of lavish adornment, paired down to its basic human elements. Each actor’s faces and wary movements conveying the strain of their plight.

As Ilya, Erzhan Nurymbet is particularly affecting, cutting a striking a figure against the mountainous landscape. Through his quiet defiance and empathetic quest for acceptance, the film’s tough exteriors give way to an absorbing narrative. As Kazakhstan’s official candidate for the Foreign Language Oscar, the thematic undercurrent in Stranger bears similarities to Russia’s 2014 nominee Leviathan. Both exude biblical concerns of the suffering of man, and in Stranger, Ilya is destined to become its martyr. And it’s this unheralded heroism that keeps you engaged despite the challenging nature of the material.

Yet despite the impressive formalism of its filmmaking and the script’s fascinating exploration of humanity, Stranger never approaches the sublime. It seeks to emulate the style of the classic epics, but the admirable authenticity of its historical drama becomes its unfortunate undoing. You won’t be able to turn away from its intriguing central character, but too often the leisurely pacing and grim atmosphere tests your patience and ultimately, your enjoyment.