by- way- of- Azerbaijani comedy finds whimsy in age-old battle of the sexes
Directed by Veit Helmer
Cast: Kristyna Malérová, Maximillion Mauff, NIno Ckheidze
From the evidence at hand, German writer-director Veit Helmer isn’t much at home in his own country, having helmed productions in Bulgaria, Portugal, Japan and Kazakhstan. The globe-hopping filmmaker is best known for his magical 1999 comedy Tuvalu, about romantic entanglements at a broken-down bathhouse in Eastern Europe. Helmer’s newest offering, the tonally similar Absurdistan, finds him back on the international scene—this time in the Eurasian nation of Azerbaijan. The result of this cinematic sojourn is an inordinately enjoyable throwback to ’90s cinema when the foreign/art house environment was filled with films that were cute, charming, exotic and slightly naughty.
Absurdistan is set in an unnamed village stuck on some isolated chunk of Caspian earth wedged between Central Asia, the Middle East and Mother Russia. This dusty, backwater town was once revered for its lovely maidens and virile men, who—according to local legend—fought off the Mongol hordes. But that was an awfully long time ago. Now the town is crumbling and forgotten—unlisted on any map and unclaimed by any nation. And the legendary Mongol-killing men? They’re all slovenly layabouts who leave the women to do the work. At least there’s still one lovely maiden, dark-eyed cutie Aya (Kristyna Malérová). Vying for her affections is lifelong suitor Temelko (Maximilian Mauff). Dorky but sincere, Temelko believes he and Aya are destined for one another because they share the same birthday.
Aya’s astrologically minded granny confirms the fated hookup but informs the would-be teenage lovers they cannot consummate their passion until the stars are right—a heavenly conjunction that won’t happen for another four years. Resigned to celibacy, Temelko joins the village’s other young people on a generational pilgrimage to the “big city” in hopes of absorbing enough knowledge to save their backwards burg from its various and sundry problems. Four years later, Temelko is the only one loyal enough (or dumb enough) to return home.
Unfortunately, life in the village has taken a turn for the worse. The town’s only water supply, an ancient pipeline from the mountains, has fallen into disrepair. None of the town’s male population is enterprising enough to fix the problem. With no recourse left to them, the village’s women borrow a page from ancient lit, pulling a Lysistrata on the menfolk: No water, no sex. This puts poor Temelko in a hell of a bind. He’s only got one week to fulfill his astrological, sextacular destiny with Aya. That gives him just seven days to bring an end to this stubborn war of the sexes.
Absurdistan is clearly shot on a threadbare budget. There are a handful of logical gaps and a smattering of technical errors—evidence that maybe Helmer doesn’t run as tight a ship as perhaps he should. Plotwise, the whimsy-heavy script (courtesy of Helmer and two other contributors) stretches its thin allegory to near-ludicrous lengths (and still barely breaks the 88-minute barrier). In the end, though, it’s hard to begrudge this enjoyable folktale-as-film. If the words “nice” or “little” don’t sound like too much of an insult to you, then this nice, little indie comedy is the perfect antidote to the encroachment of summertime’s violent, crude, overproduced Hollywood-built blockbusters.