What is light? What is dark? What is fear? What is the purpose of our existence when faced with indelible oppression in the shape of stifling, man-made apparatus? Or more ethereal forces we don’t fully comprehend? Since the dawn of art as a form of human expression, these questions and many more have been at the forefront of what concerns authors, poets, painters, photographers, sculptors, and of course, filmmakers. In the case of cinema, how does one go about encapsulating and expressing such deeply personal interpretations of subjects that are communicated through highly personal experiences? Kazak auteur Adilkhan Yerzhanov, whose films have played at such prestigious festivals as Cannes, takes it upon himself to put his cinematic stamp on themes of oppression and hopelessness with his latest feature, Night God.
Yerzhanov’s picture is a difficult one to describe, even more so for someone who had never had the opportunity to take in any of the filmmaker’s previous projects. Ostensibly, the movie follows the trials and tribulations of a man who returns to the town he once lived in, along with his teenage daughter and wife. The surroundings are glum and cold, with only bonfires, candles, and neon signs fueled by intermittent electrical power shedding any light on the streets. Not long before the trio settles in what the viewer assumes is their home, the father is called upon by state representatives — possible police — to partake in a state-mandated game show. From there begins the man’s journey into the absurdly grim nature of this apocalyptic, wintry, violent country ruled with an iron fist. In the back of several characters minds, however, is a greater looming force: a god of sorts who — if rumours are to be believed — occasionally plops down from the sky, and anyone who dares stare at it spontaneously combusts.
The above plot synopsis barely does the film any justice, but then again, Night God is not the sort of movie for which one need necessarily invest much time and effort in relating the plot machinations. The protagonist, if he may be described as such, simply has things happen to him, then gets told where to go and what to do in order to survive state-sanctioned repercussions. From being an extra on a game show to having a live bomb removed (it’s never explained how the device was actually strapped onto him), to proving that he is not a religious extremist, to…well, one assumes the reader gets the point. Writer-director Yerzhanov evidently has much on his mind, and some cursory research on the web suggests that the sort of plot and themes that percolate in Night God make up his ‘jam.’ General knowledge of Kazakhstan supports the notion that this is a filmmaker fascinated by his country’s 20th-century history, as well as the effects that may still be felt to this day. It was after all a Soviet satellite state, a region where so-called enemies of the state where sent for imprisonment, as well as being a favoured spot for nuclear bomb testing; by most accounts, the past one hundred years have been rough for Kazakhstan.
More than anything, the aspect willing viewers will gravitate towards is the project’s aesthetic pleasures. Yerzhanov deliberately had the entire film shot on a sound stage, and while that may not sound terribly impressive, the point to make here is that he never really shies away from making it obvious that everything was made in an unnatural environment. This affords the director the ability to manipulate sights and sounds however he sees fit under any circumstances, and Yerzhanov embraces the challenge to the fullest. There is an old criticism aimed at certain movies when it is deemed that they have a cheap, ‘studio’ look. Well, that’s exactly the point here in Night God. Out of this emerges a beautiful artificiality, where light and shadow are perfectly calibrated to whatever fits a given scene. Everything definitely looks fake, yet in the best way possible.
Night God earns the dubious reputation of being a film that is both incredibly fascinating and incredibly boring all at once.
Furthermore, the cinematography and editing are extraordinarily deliberate as well. Make no mistake — this is by no means a film that sprints along at a mile-per-minute. Nay, time is taken to observe and indulge in the sets and costumes, with little-to-no dialogue interrupting the constant sound of the wind, burning fire, and water dripping from ceilings and running down walls into puddles. The longer takes render the sequences stifling after a while — though given the subject matter, that’s arguably the point.
Considering all of the above, one might come to the conclusion that Night God is in fact a must-see motion picture masterpiece, a film to put immediately at the top of one’s watch list. That might be true for a very select portion of people that ascribe themselves as movie fans, but to borrow a tired expression, this movie is not for everyone. For all of its visually unique renderings and occasional moments that surprise, the fact of the matter is that Yerzhanov keeps everything move along at a snail’s pace. It is one of those movies about which more than one person will walk away arguing that ‘nothing happened,’ and to be honest, they wouldn’t be far off in that assessment. Pretentiousness is another adjective that comes to mind — in particular when the protagonist, who occasionally shares his inner thoughts via narration, hammers home the point one time too many how God is ‘the senselessness’ or ‘the darkness.’ At the risk of coming off as blunt, Night God can be a bit of a snooze fest.
Walking out the theatre as the film ended, a particular thought struck the author, one that encapsulates the type of movie Night God is and its place in the cinematic landscape. At the National Arts Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, there is usually a room sequestered from the more open space galleries in which cinematic art projects are projected. One may walk in and out as they please, taking a few minutes to makes heads or tails of supremely art house movies that play on loop. Night God is the kind of movie that would play in that room. It looks really nice, has some deep themes that it wants to get off its chest, and will come across as terribly artsy-fartsy for 90% of the movie-going public.
Night God earns the dubious reputation of being a film that is both incredibly fascinating and incredibly boring all at once. It is the best of both worlds insofar as the director and his team have clearly crafted something with a very specific, with an appealing aesthetic (to a degree), whilst unleashing a movie that ultimately isn’t very engaging. It’s a moving painting, which is both a good and bad thing in this case. The most perplexing question is why it was chosen to play not once but twice at the Fantasia Film Festival. Fantasia crowds don’t sit through 110 minutes of ultra-slow burns suited for the die-hard art house crowd. It’s not without quality, but ultimately, very few will be praying to Night God.