Every film from an underrepresented country of the world should always be welcomed with great anticipation, especially when they’re selected to screen at an established film festival like Locarno. Directed by Kazakh filmmaker Sharipa Urazbayeva, Mariam — at first sight — exudes the charming quality of a powerful female character study. Despite some technical issues in the sound and colour correction department, Urazbayeva’s first feature quietly delivers early on through the beautiful yet stark snowy landscapes of Kazakhstan, but then the film loses grip and gets stranded while it tries to come full circle both visually and plot-wise.
After seconds of crops gently swaying in a crispy breeze, there’s a cry from a woman calling a man’s name. More seconds pass, more crops rustle and eventually Mariam (Meruert Sabbusinova) emerges. In the blink of an eye, she forcefully reclaims the frame. Her reddish, wind-slapped and concerned face transfixes the screen as she looks around for a footprint or any other sign of her husband’s passage. The man went out in the morning, headed to town to buy some food and now he’s mysteriously gone. Casting aside desperation, Mariam goes to the local police station to report her husband’s disappearance but no search party can be sent out until a few days have passed. As life goes on at home, Mariam tries to keep everything together, but having become a single mother with three kids to look after (and a farm to manage) is arduous. The chances of seeing her husband coming back home are ever so dim.
Through repeated medium shots, the washed-out colours of Mariam’s palette add to the desolation of the subject’s condition, which is reflected in and exacerbated by the harshness of the ungrateful land she inhabits. The camerawork is decisively apt, displaying Urazbayeva’s perfect control of her craft — the strong suit of her feature debut. From placing the camera at ground-level — a la Yasujirō Ozu — to purposefully playing with point of views and suspensions of the shot-reverse-shot continuum in all the scenes at the police station, Mariam offers loads to please the viewer with.
Despite being a nicely-executed film, Miriam’s narrative arc isn’t convincing. Although Urazbayeva, who also wrote the script, succeeds in presenting a vivid and raw portrait of her main character, it’s in the second half that the narrative structure becomes too predictable, and tedium creeps in. When Mariam finds herself alone in a world now deprived of the man’s lead, she never appears confused or lost. Rather, she has the strictness of a parent who rarely lets their soft side slip away in front of the children. Apparently cold and detached like the wintery lands surrounding her, Mariam soon warms up to an old friend’s cheap compliments; her gravitas is now washed away while some lipstick is worn in its stead.
What is most harmful here is attaching the concept of re-gained femininity to makeup and fancy earrings. There shouldn’t be any need for a knight in shining armour to come to the heroine’s rescue. No matter how unequal the environment, no matter how a single woman is looked askance at, bargaining her independence and value for some flattery shouldn’t make the cut.
Ren Scateni (@29s____) is a film critic based in Edinburgh. She regularly contributes to Take One and has written for The Skinny and Screen Queens. Serena is a Japanese cinema enthusiast and usually ends up watching all the East-Asian films screening at festivals.