A film that excels in terms of cinematography but not in terms of script and direction…
The story starts in the steppes of 1930s Kazakhstan with a harsh period for the nation with famine, collectivization, purges from the Soviet government and war taking a huge toll on its population, with more than 5.000.000 Kazakhs dying in the first half of the 20th century, as it is pointed out in the film’s introduction.
Among these circumstances, little Ilyas lives with his father, with the two of them making their living by hunting and selling the pelts of the animals they kill. The boy does not go to school and the only education he receives is from one of the elders in the village, named Shamis. During one night, soldiers take away his father and Illyas is left alone. However, instead of choosing to stay with another family, he decides to leave the village altogether, living instead in a cave with a bunch of wolves he took under his wing when their mother died. His life is one of complete isolation, with the only contacts he has with civilisation being Kamshut, a girl in the village who has feelings for him, and with Ibrai, a man who helps him to trade furs for gunpowder. Eventually, his feelings for Kamshut, the scarcity of quarries and the ever-changing times force him to reach out to the people in the village, with terrible consequences for him.
Ermek Tursunov, who wrote and directed the film, takes a clear stance towards Soviet Union and communism in general. Presenting them as authorities whose unjust laws worsened the already harsh living circumstances in Kazakhstan, with purges, forced recruitments for the army, and violent population mobilizations. This point of view is chiefly depicted through Ilyas, an individual who has attained a certain amount of happiness solely due to his isolation. Though that quickly deteriorates when modern society catches up with him. This is most evident in the scene where he returns to the village after the war, with the inhabitants eventually beating him up after they accuse him for desertion. His struggle to adapt becomes rather obvious, and the director even managed to include some humour in the situation, with him not knowing that the radio he buys works on batteries and thus purchasing a new one every time the batteries go off. Additionally, in a clear notion of how much the regime forced individuals to go against their nature is the fact that the villagers make him work as a shepherd, guarding animals instead of killing them, as he has done all his life up to that point.
The film is actually divided into two parts, with Ilyas’ forced coming to the village being the point that separates them. In the first half, we mainly witness him hunting in the steppes, with the cinematography being magnificent – including astonishing shots of animals, woods and mountains, inside picturesque but ultimately harsh scenery. The second half, however, is one of decay. Even if the director wanted to depict this, his approach is somewhat overboard, resulting in a dullness that stretches for about half of the film. The pace is slow, dialogues are scarce, and the music practically nonexistent throughout the film’s duration – however much the cinematography of the first part somewhat compensates for this lack, it does not in the second.
With the acting being very low key, if not limited since the film depicts almost as many straight scenery shots as it does people, together the obvious lack of budget, Stranger is a very difficult film to watch and its artful naturalistic elements are not enough to alter the fact or compensate for its flaws.