May, 2003, Drama

What movies lack in intimacy, they can often make up in what the French describe as "mise en scene", a phrase which refers to a film's setting or physical environment, but which is better understood, I think, in its literal meaning--to "put in place" or better yet, "to put within". Memorable films draw audiences inside them, enveloping viewers, (for a couple of hours at least) in another time and place. When the plot is set in a strange or exotic location the impact can be even more satisfying, presenting worlds that just can't be otherwise experienced. 

The Walter Reade Theatre at the Lincoln Center here in New York is dedicated to showing films from every part of the globe, and they're currently running a series from Central Asia they call Films From The Silk Road. Orator was selected to initiate this collection, and the choice was perfect; in just over an hour and twenty minutes, director Yusup Razikov dispatches the pretensions of Soviet-style communism as it engulfed Uzbekistan in the years following World War 1.

An unseen grandson narrates his grandfather's exposure to the politics of Soviet-style socialism by introducing us to a warm and loving family comprised of granddad and his three wives, two of which he's inherited, (along with a house, cart and horse) from his recently deceased brother. When he's unexpectedly asked to speak at a rally supporting the new communist regime that's taken control of Uzbeks in the name of the USSR, our hero discovers a previously unexercised skill at oratory, and he's promptly tapped for increasingly bigger tasks in the transformation of his countrymen's attitudes about their new rulers and the ideology they've brought with them. The world will now be a better place, he keeps assuring his audiences; but he soon discovers that his handlers also want him to help rid the country of its outmoded practices--women covering their faces in public, reverence for religious customs, loyalty to one's neighbors, multiple wives….

The poor orator is a decent man, and he doesn't believe his wives can survive if he is forced to divorce them, so he continues to make speeches for the new regime and watches rather helplessly as his trio of spouses are taught to read and write, disregard their traditional dress and enter the new world the Russians are perfecting. But he feels most conflicted when the brightest of them is sent off to school in the city; then the local female party leader seduces him, and the son he sires has to be raised by his two remaining wives since the child's mother dies and leaves him with a son he shouldn't even have. The Orator continues to use his speaking skills ever farther from home, ultimately spending his old age, all alone, in a pensioner's facility outside far-off Moscow….

The human capacity for self-delusion and the evil that flows from it form the central theme of this wry, satiric examination of a social/political system that corrupted its principal players and violently dispatched them in the name of the "greater good". Razikov ingeniously employs his minimal sets and bleached-out film stock to create a dreamy visual effect that has the feel of a lived reminiscence and despite an obviously limited range of camera movements, (few tracking shots and no overheads) he succeeds in taking his audience to a place few outsiders have seen. This sly fable and its universal appeal is anti-propaganda at its very best, and in presenting the simple details of Uzbeki dress, food, hospitality to guests and family celebration, the director provides a wonderful glimpse into an otherwise inaccessible world. "Mise en scene" of a very tall order!    

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