Absurdistan (2008)

Genres - Comedy  |   Sub-Genres - Romantic Comedy, Slice of Life  |   Release Date - Feb 6, 2009 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 87 min.  |   Countries - Azerbaijan, Germany, France  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Mark Deming

The war between men and women has been such a common theme in the arts that after a few thousand years you might imagine all the possibilities would have been worked out by now. Thankfully, that isn't the case, and writer and director Veit Helmer's engaging and cheerfully eccentric comedy Absurdistan manages to bring a fresh, charming perspective to this old saw with an imaginative fusion of past and present.

Absurdistan is set in a small village in a much-occupied nation that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been essentially forgotten by the rest of the world. The men of the village take great pride in what they claim are well-known tales of their strength and virility, but for the most part they're a rather lazy lot, spending most of their days in the local coffeehouse while the women do the bulk of the work. Generations ago, a quarrel between men and women led to a drought in the land, and to appease the women, the men built an irrigation line that brings water to the village.

Unfortunately, the men aren't much on maintenance, and the pipe has fallen into severe disrepair, making water a very precious commodity. Aya (played by Kristýna Malérova) and Temelko (Maximilian Mauff) were born on the same day and have been in love since they were children; now that they're teenagers, Temelko is increasingly eager to take their relationship to a more mature level, and Aya's grandmother (Nino Chkheidze) has used her knowledge of astrology to determine the ideal day for them to get together -- which conveniently occurs after he returns from a few years at school. To make their big night more special, Temelko fashions a small makeshift swimming pool for Aya and himself, but while she's thrilled at first, Aya is soon struck by the injustice of it all, and tells Temelko that she won't make love to him unless he can bring water to the whole village -- and that the stars will be in alignment for just another six days. The women of the village get word of Aya's ultimatum, and they join her in a Lysistrata-style sex strike until the men repair the irrigation system. While Temelko is determined to find a way to fix the water line, the other men of the town prefer to use their imagination to find ways to subvert the strike until the two genders have literally split themselves into armed camps, separated by barbed wire.

Veit Helmer has reached back to the styles and traditions of the silent cinema for Absurdistan; the film has narration, sound effects, a music score, and every once in a great while you hear a character say something, but you could probably count every significant line of dialogue in the film on one hand, and while Kristýna Malérova and Maximilian Mauff bring a welcome fresh-faced wonder to their roles as the young would-be lovers, it's the nameless and voiceless supporting characters who really give the film its greatest strength. Helmer's gift for finding great faces is impressive indeed, and there's a grand, lumpy eloquence in his schlubby men and strong-willed women that suggests he isn't exaggerating when he says he visited 28 countries looking for the perfect townspeople for his village -- a lot of work must have gone into finding the right faces to tell this tale, and it pays off. Helmer demonstrates a tremendous knack for visual storytelling, embracing a style that's fluid and imaginative without calling attention to itself, and his compositional feel suggests an inspired fusion of Buster Keaton, Federico Fellini, and Stanley Kubrick; Helmer may have made a film that's (almost) without dialogue, but the final product feels timeless rather than rooted in the pre-Vitaphone era. There are moments in Absurdistan when Helmer seems to be reaching for deeper themes than just a simple domestic comedy, especially as the conflict between the sexes grows more tense and the village looks more like some nameless war zone (and the women begin dressing in proto-military fatigues). But a big part of what makes Absurdistan work is its grace and its charm, and the filmmakers have the good sense not to weigh it down any more than is necessary; anyone looking for analogies to past and present military conflicts can find them, but it does no disservice to this movie if you prefer to read it as a playful, imaginative, and very funny bit of magic realism about love, plumbing, and the many ways men and women do (or don't) understand one another.