Film Review: Bulgarian Oscar Contender ‘Ága’ Is a Slow Burn in the Frigid Tundra

On Monday, October 14, people throughout the Americas celebrated the now controversial Columbus Day in recognition of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the region. In recent years, however, many have chosen to instead chosen to commemorate the day as Indigenous People’s Day, in honor of those who suffered as a result of Columbus’ “discovery” of their land. With this in mind, it seems an appropriate time for the recent release of Milko Lazarov’sÁga“, which authentically depicts the experience of Siberian people clinging to their traditional way of life in the face of Western influences.

Much like Columbus’ encounters in the New World, “Ága” introduces a society which will seem foreign to many Western audiences. It is the story of Nanook and his wife Sedna, who live off the land surrounding their yurt, situated in a harsh tundra climate. While many others – including their estranged daughter – have fled to work and live in more forgiving, modern environments, the couple have held firm to their roots. But as their world becomes increasingly unsustainable, Nanook is forced to reconsider the possibility of moving to greener pastures.

“Ága” belongs to a strand of world cinema primarily dedicated to understanding foreign cultures. But whereas similarly ethnographic films such as the “Romeo and Juliet” influenced “Tanna” used familiar narrative structures to craft a compelling story, Lazarov takes a more understated “slice of life” approach. But although this filmmaking style is suitably immersive, it makes it difficult audiences to invest in the slightly monotonous storyline. While the characters do face a few weather-related adversities, much of the film’s running time is spent depicting mundane tasks such as fishing or cooking.

Admittedly, this observational quality does yield some beautiful images, as Kaloyan Bozhilov’s wide-screen cinematography captures the landscape in all of its pristine glory. And together with the screenplay’s pointed dialogue, the film stealthily advocates for the dangers of climate change for such vulnerability communities. As Nanook and Sedna reminisce about the past, their allusions to the melting ice and declining reindeer populations starkly reinforce the fragile nature of their lives.

Despite the film’s laborious pacing, its humanistic themes come together powerfully in the wake of a significant plot turn. Shifting towards a more operatic style of storytelling in the final act, it expands Nanook’s worldview to emotionally devastating effect. As the previously ambigious meaning of the “Ága” is revealed, the conclusion reminds us to cherish both our human loved ones and our precious Mother Earth.

“Ága” is now playing in select theaters.

GRADE: (★★½)