The existential road movie gets an offbeat, elliptical yet peculiarly compelling Transcaucasian makeover in director Hilal Baydarov’s second fiction feature, “In Between Dying.” Set against the striking, often purgatorially stark backdrop of Azerbaijan’s rural landscapes, with their striated mountains, autumn forests, fog-shrouded fields and silvery pebbled lakesides, it’s a film indebted to its influences. Baydarov was a student of Bela Tarr’s, although the additional imprints of Carlos Reygadas (who produces), Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Andrei Tarkovsky, with even a little Godardian absurdity thrown in for good measure, at least ensure this particular admixture eventually emerges as its own singular animal — in this case, a frequently glimpsed white horse, whose heroic associations are offset by its increasing dirtiness and apparent despondency.
The narrative eventually emerges as a kind of hero’s quest, which is surprising given the protagonist, Davud (Orkhan Iskandarli), initially seems very far from anyone’s idea of a hero. We first meet him being casually cruel to his ailing but devoted mother (Maryam Naghiyeva) in their small home in Baku, and then committing a pointless and undramatic murder when a weed dealer he meets in a cemetery makes a slighting remark about his girlfriend. Fleeing the scene on scooterback, Davud is bumblingly pursued by other members of the dead man’s gang, at the behest of their offhandedly vengeful boss, a man they all call “Doctor” (Murvat Abdulazizov).
Once on the road, Davud’s journey becomes episodic, divided into differently titled chapters, each featuring a more or less surreal encounter with one or several women, and each featuring some form of violence, illness or death, usually related to their oppression by their menfolk. He shows compassion to a rabid girl (Kubra Shukurova) locked up in a shed by her father. He counsels a battered wife (Narmin Hasanova) watching for her abusive husband by the side of the road. He rescues a suicidal bride (Rana Asgarova) fleeing her arranged marriage. He helps a blind girl (Asgarova again) pull her aging, naked mother (Gulnaz Ismayilova) out of her muddy, pre-dug grave. And finally he is put up for the night by a black-clad war widow, who may be the same woman he dreams of in the film’s frequent poetic fantasy interludes, but whom he may not recognize as such.
The built-in linearity of the road movie is complicated and given different textures by two other separate but parallel strands. There are the reverie sections, in which Davud’s self-consciously, sometimes pretentiously poetic voiceover, as well as that of his as-yet-unmet soulmate wife (Asgarova, a third time), play over repeated imagery of that gray-white horse, a muddy lakeside and a field in which the lonely stranded characters have a tendency to collapse in a swoon. “Your darkness is lighter than any light, I am more acquainted with your distance than with anything near to me,” goes one of the more comprehensible passages. Elsewhere the metaphors and musings can read as labored rather than lyrical, and it’s hard to work out if that is a feature of the Azerbaijani dialogue, or a bug in its translation to English.
But just as this element threatens to sink the film into ponderousness, the third strand lightens and leavens the mix with its deadpan, Beckettian humor. The three lackadaisically pursuing henchmen, who in an absurdist flourish are seen chugging along in different cars from one encounter to the next, usually arrive on the scene just after yet another person has died. Each time they piece together the narrative of what has just occurred; and each time, their respect for Davud incrementally grows, complicating their ostensible mission, which is to kill him.
Isa (Kamran Huseynov), the head stooge, reports back to the Doctor after each episode telling, in long phone-call monologues, the story of their latest near-miss with Davud, in such a way that events that have just unfolded fall into folkloric, mythic patterns. Soon “In Between Dying” becomes as much about this storification process — the way we impose narratives and morals on the randomness of life in order to make sense of it — as it is about the story itself.
DP Elshan Abbasov almost exclusively uses grave, occasionally sardonic long shots, so far removed from the action that they make even murder seem drily banal, until a sudden closeup, introduced by one of a handful of deliberately jarring edits, looms up like a slap to the face. Pinned to a mid-register palette of grays and taupes, the visuals are most emblematic in foggy landscapes, sometimes pushing the frame to the very limit of decipherability, as when Davud and the Bride have a conversation in a field so misty we can barely make out their silhouettes. Along with the plucked guitar strings of Kanan Rustamli’s score, and sound designer Daniel Timmons’ lonely sonic landscapes threaded together by the putt-putt-putting scooter engine, the indistinct imagery gives this confidently esoteric film its enigmatic, slightly mournful cast. As the mist swaddles the future in uncertainty and envelops the past in forgetfulness, Davud eventually returns to his beginnings but this time changed and careful: an errant knight on a 50cc steed.