Artificially Preserved

Sentimentality deranged: Williams in One Hour Photo
photo: François Duhmel 2002 Fox Searchlight
Sentimentality deranged: Williams in One Hour Photo

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One Hour Photo
Written and directed by Mark Romanek
Fox Searchlight

Mother India
Directed by Mehboob Khan
Written by Wajahat Mirza and S. Ali Raza
August 23 through 29 at the Walter Reade

The Fall of Otrar
Directed by Ardak Amirkulov
Written by Alexei Guerman and Svetlana Karmalita
August 23 through 29 at the Walter Reade

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The Fall of Otrar, directed by Ardak Amirkulov from a script by Alexei Guerman and Svetlana Karmalita (who also produced), is an even more convoluted expression of national identity. Produced in Kazakhstan just as the Soviet Union was falling apart, the movie evidently broke a Soviet-era taboo on dramatizing Muslim history in evoking a 13th-century universe of visceral cruelty and inexplicable intrigue.

The movie's dense, complicated script has the same oblique quality as Guerman's own films—My Friend Ivan Lapshin and Khrustaliov, My Car!—although the spectacle suggests the tradition of Japanese samurai epics and the spaghetti westerns that followed. The nominal hero (a role that could have been written for Toshiro Mifune) is a lone Kipchak warrior scout who calls himself "Allah's Arrow" and, after seven years working for Genghis Khan, returns home to warn his people of the impending storm.

Shot in tinted black-and-white with occasional bursts of color, The Fall of Otrar is a movie of long, fluid takes and fabulous set design. The dramatis personae are wildly multicultural. Otrar, the capital of the pre-Kazakh Kipchaks, is an international crossroads—with all manner of Arabs, Chinese, Persians, and Slavs preparing (or not) for imminent Mongol invasion. Like George W. Bush, the Kipchak shah is obsessed with attacking Baghdad—and thus oblivious to the threat from the east.

Enigmatic from the get-go, The Fall of Otrar builds to a series of spectacular battle scenes, but the mood is never less than sardonic. After the sack of Otrar, the victorious Genghis Khan mocks the religious schisms that prevented his Muslim foes from uniting against him. With the defeated Kipchak general chained at his feet, the "Wind of God" holds forth on his place in history. Overhead, meanwhile, a heedless bird caws and shits.

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