The title of The Gentle Indifference of the World comes from Albert Camus’ The Stranger. The protagonist, understanding that the universe doesn’t care about him, realises that it actually reflects his own indifference, thus leading to sense of strange kinship between the two. A central text of absurdist philosophy, it posits that one of the best ways to deal with the absurdity of life is to simply embrace it.
For Kuandyk (Kuandyk Dyussembaev) and Saltanat (Dinara Baktybaeva), indifference isn’t so much a choice as a necessity. Living in a country seemingly taken over by petty gangsters and rampant corruption, trying to get by can be somewhat of a Byzantine task. They are childhood friends who set off from the countryside to Astana together; Kuandyk to start his own business, and Saltanat to get her uncle to pay off the debts her mother inherited from her father.
Kuandyk is in love with Saltanat, something he has known for a very long time and has simply accepted as a fact of life. Persistent in accompanying her, yet polite and respectful of her needs, he comes across as a good person who is also rather naïve. With most of his savings garnered from winning fights, he has no real plan of how he will succeed in the big city. Still, without having to try too hard, he finds himself a successful job as a labourer in almost no time.
As for Saltanat, her uncle will help get her mother out of debtors prison, but on one brutal condition: she must marry his friend. But Saltanat is far too proud, and instead toils away as an office cleaner. This divergence in circumstances slyly indicts the patriarchal nature of Kazakhstani society, allowing men to go on make something of themselves while women are expected to become wives and later suffer for their sins of their husbands. Nevertheless, both Kuandyk and Saltanat are eventually forced to make compromising decisions, ultimately leading to the film’s bloody conclusion.
This all sounds like heavy stuff, yet the Indifference is shot in a comic, almost deadpan style. It brings to mind the movies of Aki Kaurismäki and Jim Jarmusch — using static frames and idiosyncratic details to create a sense of zen-like whimsy. Additionally, director Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s characters are not stereotypes, instead given their own unique mannerisms to make them stand out. Even if they are capable of great violence and evil acts, they are humanised through their weirdness.
If The Gentle Indifference of the World does go to dark places, this is all done with a sense of great restraint, as if to say that none of it really matters. Long-distance shots are also employed in the manner of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, making the most crucial of moments feel almost prosaic. Thankfully for us, the lighting is gorgeous, with scenes of the Kazakhstani countryside even evoking the panoramic Westerns of John Ford.
Eventually, Yerzhanov shows himself to be far less indifferent than the title suggests, locating a strong sense of hope that gestures towards the eternal. This isn’t so much created by the film’s style as outwardly stated by Kuandyk, who ultimately believes that love is the only thing that really matters. Its a fine sentiment indeed, but this love story is hardly evocative enough to make us really feel that it is true. The stylistic approach keeps one at an arm’s distance from the narrative, allowing admiration for its form, but not true absorption into the characters. Perhaps this is part of the point, the long takes forcing the viewer to engage philosophically with the text at hand. This will ironically force most viewers into a state of indifference — perhaps fulfilling the aim of the film, but hardly making for great cinema.