Admittedly, it is somewhat premature (not to mention presumptuous) to proclaim the winner of this year’s Competition already. Two more films are yet to screen and in terms of critical consensus, it would seem that Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria has pretty much won already. Yet again, if the latter were a sure-fire indicator, then Christian Petzold’s Barbara would have won last year’s top award without contest. However, in the end, Petzold had to content himself with the Silver Bear for best direction. After being blown away by the only premiere on today’s Competition schedule, I am ready to put my money down and place my bet: Emir Baigazin’s Uroki Garmonii (Harmony Lessons) will take home this year’s Golden Bear.
This stunning piece of filmmaking from Kazakhstan is only rendered all the more extraordinary by the fact that it is the debut feature of a virtually unknown 28-year-old. Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov) is 13 and lives alone with his grandmother in a secluded hut in the Kazakh countryside. At his school, the students wear slick black suits with white shirts as uniforms, affecting the look of gangsters from a Tarantino film. Indeed, bullies run a racketeering ring, extorting money from the others, which they then pass on to the school’s seniors. Their leader, Bolat (Aslan Anarbayev), has an axe to grind with Aslan and after submitting him to an act of humiliation as revolting as it is creative, he orders everyone to ostracize him, turning Aslan into an outcast. The mistreatment and isolation takes a heavy toll on Aslan’s mental state who becomes maniacally obsessed with cleanliness and starts torturing cockroaches with ever more elaborate contrivances, transferring his rage onto the hapless vermin until this proves no longer sufficient and more direct means of exacting revenge are required.
Surprisingly – and refreshingly – the film is not unremittingly bleak, offering several comical flourishes that rather than clash with the otherwise somber subject matter, only serve to enrich it. The remarkable script acquires further nuance through a subtle and highly innovative use of surrealism and allegory, which allows the film to delve deep into the deteriorating psyche of its protagonist. This surrealism is in large part achieved through the strikingly eloquent cinematography. Though never ostentatious, the film’s images reveal a rigorous level of forethought. The few outdoor shots elicit transcendental power from the sprawling nature, while the painstakingly composed shots of the predominantly sterile and inhospitable interiors convey their function as microcosms through which to consider the systems of power and corruption that engender injustice. The cast of teenagers, all of them non-professionals, is equally impressive, creating characters that are in turn endearing and repulsive, funny and tragic, appealing and terrifying, and never short of compelling.
In short, it’s a masterpiece. Let’s see if Wong Kar Wai and the gang agree.