HARMONY LESSONS (Uroki garmonii) B+
Kazakhstan France Germany (115 mi) 2013 d: Emir Baigazin Website
Much in the same vein as other darkly disturbing films that expose the deadly effects of systematic violence and corruption, like the Mexican film Heli (2013) or the Russian film The Major (Mayor) (2013), all are brutal films that unleash a horrific price on what are otherwise innocent bystanders who happen to be pulled into this viciously dirty business. While there don’t seem to be as many mafia movies these days, in their place are a multitude of films about swarming gangs of thugs that control a highly specialized marketplace, as they’re each one a loose commentary on black market capitalism that lives by its own rules, like the Wild West, answering to no law but their own. Each one survives by inflicting enormous violence, which generates an accompanying fear associated with it, allowing them to continue to operate with impunity. Until another gang moves in that’s bigger or stronger, they each feed, like vultures on a carcass, within their own established turf. What could be more localized than the rural regions of Kazakhstan? Beautifully set in a landscape of mountains and snow, where a vast emptiness seems to dwarf the inhabitants living in the small town, the harshness of survival in these lonely outskirts is expressed early on when young 13-year old Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov, who was discovered in an orphanage) first has to catch a slippery sheep and then slaughter and skin it under the supervision of his grandmother. Written, directed, and edited by this first time director, he already exhibits a mature style, making a strikingly realist film with nonprofessional actors, yet he uses an interesting technique of skipping past major incidents, where we only learn what happens by the repercussions afterwards, leaving much of what happens in a permanent state of ambiguity.
Aslan is a quiet and studious farm kid that keeps pretty much to himself, having few social skills and no friends, the kind of kid that doesn’t speak unless spoken to, where he takes his schoolwork seriously and seems to have a talent for science, where he collects cockroaches, tying them on strings and feeding them to his lizards living in a fishbowl, while at the same time he’s learning about survival of the fittest from Darwinism. When they teach him electricity, he concocts his own tiny electric chair and fries a poor unfortunate roach. But his reserved, anti-social behavior makes him a popular target for schoolyard bullies, who are little more than extortion artists led by the lead thug Bolat (Aslan Anarbayev), threatening to beat up anyone who is seen talking or befriending Aslan, who quickly becomes isolated and even more of a social outcast. We soon learn Bolat collects money from lower classmen, which is then handed over to upper classmen, who are in turn extorted by local gangsters, where the money is used to support their members in prison. This social hierarchy is thoroughly in place, where anyone who doesn’t play by the rules gets attacked and beat up by several of Bolat’s sidekicks. Another kid that recently moved from the city, Mirsayan (Mukhtar Andassov), isn’t really afraid to stand up to bullies, as he’s not impressed, but he takes his lumps. There’s also a side story about an attractive young Muslim girl, Akzhan (Anelya Adilbekova), who insists upon wearing a headscarf, even in gym class, as otherwise boys spend too much time leering at her, actions that she feels violates the Koran. She wants nothing to do with stirring up that kind of desecrating behavior, even though the school officials urge her to remove it. One of the more curious moments finds Aslan spying on her when she’s performing a modern dance routine, which may all be happening inside his head.
There’s constant head-butting against authority in this film, as teachers are quick to lecture kids who challenge their authority, which means they’re not listening to the concerns raised by the kids, who often provide them with information they need to hear, but instead they get punished for it. Similarly, if they go against the grain with Bolat, they’ll be brutalized for anything outside the norm. Meanwhile both Mirsayan and Aslan have aspirations to defy Bolat, choosing different methods, where Mirsayan is willing to fight him one on one, while Aslan resorts to more devious means. When Bolat is found dead, an act we never see, they are the prime suspects, where the police instantly fill the void of the schoolyard brutalizers, literally torturing the two kids to force them to talk, but both insist they had nothing to do with it, even after extensive beatings. At one point one of the cops turns to the other asking what if they’re telling the truth? But they quickly put those thoughts aside, as they’re paid to get the results the commander is looking for. Every level of society is bullying whoever is directly below them on the food chain, creating a horrific picture of rampant corruption and brutality in the education, police, and criminal justice systems, where Mirsayan and Aslan are their current victims. Because the film is told in such a realist style, it comes as a complete surprise when the director uses dream states for Aslan, which only becomes evident by the out-of-character events unfolding, expressed through an exaggerated state of mind. This method is even more effective by leaving out so much of the significant material, where the audience and the police are only privy to theories and unproven allegations, relying instead upon motive and established character traits, yet it remains something of an elusive puzzle for everyone to comprehend. Bolat and his gang could only operate with teachers continually turning a blind eye, while the police and their henchmen brutalize suspects with no community oversight. In this manner, the police have no established credibility with the audience, as we’re not likely to believe their questionable results, leaving the finale in a mysterious state of psychological disbelief, where truth is often difficult to obtain, clouded by the murky methods of operation. The cinematography by Aziz Zhambakiyev is often stunning, giving the film a grimly poetic yet continually gripping feeling of austerity and despair.