The Precinct (Director: Ilgar Safat): A few weeks ago, I received an email from a Hollywood-based publicist. I get lots of these sorts of emails, but this one was a bit different. How would I like to review Azerbaijan’s submission to the Best Foreign Film category for this year’s Academy Awards? That’s just the sort of unusual pitch to which I’m likely to respond, so I said sure.
Garib is a photographer of erotic nudes working in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. His fiancée Sabina is getting a bit tired of waiting for Garib to finally settle down and marry her. During an excursion to the picturesque cliffs of Gobustan, he informs her he’ll be leaving again for several months to work in Africa. They argue during the car ride back and Garib loses control of the car. Fortunately, two police officers come by and pull them from the burning wreck. Instead of of taking them to hospital, though, the policemen bring them back to their isolated precinct, where their very creepy superior submits Garib to some very probing questions about his past.
Suddenly the film flashes back to Garib’s youth. We learn how he discovers a love for photography but also how that interest is used against him by local gangsters. When a box of old negatives washes up on shore, some local thugs force Garib to print them at the studio of his beloved photography teacher. When the images turn out to be pornographic, Garib is forced to keep printing them while the thugs sell the prints. After this racket is discovered and broken up by the local Communist authorities, the thugs force Garib to take pornographic photos of Alina, a local girl who’s been turning tricks to support her young brother. Since Garib has been secretly in love with Alina, this drives him to attempt suicide. But when he tries to hang himself, the rope breaks and he’s rescued by two policemen. Curiously, they are the same two policemen we have seen earlier in the film.
When the film snaps back to the present, Garib seems to understand what the precinct is. When the officers throw him into a burning cell, he realizes he’s in a sort of purgatory. Suddenly, he comes to in the burning car with the sound of the approaching police car in his ears.
It’s a fairly ambitious structure, although I found the framing story, for all its Kafkaesque atmosphere, pretty easy to figure out. The combination of spiritual/psychological menace is clearly meant to force Garib to confront something from his past, hence the flashback. The middle section of the film is the strongest, keeping to a naturalistic tone and shedding light on the history of photography and cinema in Azerbaijan. Although the exposition is sometimes a little clumsy, I nevertheless found it quite interesting. Visually this section is strongest as well, for we travel with young Garib all over his childhood village and are not confined to the dark precinct.
Performances are good, although there’s not really much in terms of character development. Garib learns his lesson but it’s only clear from the flashback and flashforward. Within the precinct, the performances are pitched a little high, to match the eeriness of the situation. Overall, the film was entertaining without being exceptional. This is the first Azeri film I’ve ever seen, and I was impressed with the production values for the most part. But I think I would have been happier to see a film based entirely on Garib’s childhood rather than trying to graft that coming-of-age story onto a more genre-based psychological/horror story.