Film Review: Harmony Lessons

Acclaimed Berlinale Golden Bear award winning debut Harmony Lessons makes it’s way to the CPH PIX Film Festival. A terse, gruelling Darwinian drama, and just about the best film I’ve seen so far this year.

We’re first introduced to lonesome thirteen-year-old Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov) while he chases a bouncing sheep across his grandmother’s farm. It’s a playful sequence, totally transformed when – with an unnerving stoney complexion – Aslan proceeds to capture the ewe, slit it’s throat and prepare it for food. Perhaps it’s a normalised, essential activity in bucolic Kazakhstan, but it’s nevertheless a poetic foreshadowing of the savagery we will soon witness.

Life in the classroom is far from peachy for Aslan either. After a malicious sex-ed prank leaves him humiliated and ostracised, he’s left wandering alone in the shadows of the school corridors. Like any institution, there is a strict hierarchy here. Top of the wolf pack and chief tormentor is Bolat (Alsna Anarbayev) who, with his team of subservient wing-men, run an underground extortion circuit; swiping money from the smaller school kids, and passing it upwards to those older and taller than he. Meanwhile, the OCD suffering Aslan returns to his home chambers every night to conduct callous scientific experiments on the defenceless insects that populate his decrepit home. When these acts of brutality no longer suffice, Aslan calculates a scheme that he hopes will overthrow the horrendous autocracy.

Baigazan exhorts a great deal of ingenuity into the ripe Lord of the Flies rehash premise, even if his necessity for allegory may be considered to some as a little belaboured. An adept purveyor of cinematic symmetry, he uses the drab school compound to reflect the prismatic, oppressive and religiously conflicted society these youths will soon be forced into. But, for now, they are still precarious teenagers; cloaked in ill-fitting school uniforms like would-be mafioso clobber. This is no song-and-dance Bugsy Malone, however. Framed with morbid fascination by cinematographer Aziz Zhambakiyev, the situation is observed rather than explored, with Aslan kept at such an objective distance that he is presented as more of an emotionally vapid wild beast than a despairing child. Found by Baigazan in a children’s shelter, there’s such a haunting sincerity  to Timur Aidarbekov’s performance that the social unrest subtext is palpable to all, and – despite your eagerness to look away – the tragedy is so cinematically entrancing that you won’t be able to.

As writer, director and editor, cineaste Baigazan’s debut is enriched with nods to other filmmakers, deploying a Bresson-like moral economy to the portrait of grim suburban schooling, mixed with the severity of the Dardenne Brothers’ L’infant, and subtle glimpses of Tarkovsky’s oneiric surrealism come the film’s beguiling, unforgettable end. Even still, Baigazan is working within his own aesthetic realm, with a rare, vehemently grim portrait of life in Kazakhstan. Primitive and poetic, Harmony Lessons tackles the universal theme of angst-riddled adolescence and merciless social autonomy to both cruel and beautiful aplomb.

★★★★★

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