Ali and Nino, with its grand tale of love and war, feels like something of a throwback. The film, based on the 1937 novel by Kurban Said, takes place in a divided Azerbaijan on the brink of World War I and centers on the romance between Ali (Adam Bakri), a Muslim man, and Nino (Maria Valverde), a Christian woman.
Bakri and Valverde make for appealing leads, both with strong brows and high cheekbones, and it’s the brief scenes of them enjoying domestic partnership, taking comfort in a small rural homestead after a hard-won courtship, that make the greatest impression here.
There’s a certain primness to the film: Every time a love scene begins, the camera cuts abruptly away. It’s easy to imagine Ali and Nino as one of those Hollywood romantic dramas of the 1950s — the emotional beats, from Ali and Nino’s parents’ uncertainty about their children marrying to the teary finale, are easy to predict, and the score and landscapes are sweeping, conjuring a dramatic cinematic past. Director Asif Kapadia (whose last film was the harrowing Amy Winehouse documentary Amy) frames his characters in handsomely decorated rooms, or outside surrounded by white mountaintops. It’s all very tasteful, if not terribly exciting.
After the inevitably tragic ending, the end credits roll over footage of Ali and Nino dancing, in happier times. This moment has a vibrant, spontaneous feel that much of the film lacks. Ali and Nino’s relationship is largely confined to the staid strictures of a stately period piece. When they dance, or when they gaze lovingly at each other in their cozy marital shack, Bakri and Valverde provide a welcome spark.
Ali and Nino
Directed by Asif Kapadia
Opens November 18, IFC Center