This is the first Azeri film I’ve ever seen, and I was impressed with the production values for the most part.

The Precinct (Director: Ilgar Safat): A few weeks ago, I received an email from a Hollywood-based pub­li­cist. I get lots of these sorts of emails, but this one was a bit dif­ferent. How would I like to review Azerbaijan’s sub­mis­sion to the Best Foreign Film cat­egory for this year’s Academy Awards? That’s just the sort of unusual pitch to which I’m likely to respond, so I said sure.

Garib is a pho­to­grapher of erotic nudes working in Baku, the cap­ital of Azerbaijan. His fiancée Sabina is get­ting a bit tired of waiting for Garib to finally settle down and marry her. During an excur­sion to the pic­tur­esque cliffs of Gobustan, he informs her he’ll be leaving again for sev­eral months to work in Africa. They argue during the car ride back and Garib loses con­trol of the car. Fortunately, two police officers come by and pull them from the burning wreck. Instead of of taking them to hos­pital, though, the policemen bring them back to their isol­ated pre­cinct, where their very creepy superior sub­mits Garib to some very probing ques­tions about his past.

Suddenly the film flashes back to Garib’s youth. We learn how he dis­covers a love for pho­to­graphy but also how that interest is used against him by local gang­sters. When a box of old neg­at­ives washes up on shore, some local thugs force Garib to print them at the studio of his beloved pho­to­graphy teacher. When the images turn out to be por­no­graphic, Garib is forced to keep printing them while the thugs sell the prints. After this racket is dis­covered and broken up by the local Communist author­ities, the thugs force Garib to take por­no­graphic photos of Alina, a local girl who’s been turning tricks to sup­port her young brother. Since Garib has been secretly in love with Alina, this drives him to attempt sui­cide. But when he tries to hang him­self, the rope breaks and he’s res­cued by two policemen. Curiously, they are the same two policemen we have seen earlier in the film.

When the film snaps back to the present, Garib seems to under­stand what the pre­cinct is. When the officers throw him into a burning cell, he real­izes he’s in a sort of pur­gatory. Suddenly, he comes to in the burning car with the sound of the approaching police car in his ears.

It’s a fairly ambi­tious struc­ture, although I found the framing story, for all its Kafkaesque atmo­sphere, pretty easy to figure out. The com­bin­a­tion of spiritual/psychological menace is clearly meant to force Garib to con­front some­thing from his past, hence the flash­back. The middle sec­tion of the film is the strongest, keeping to a nat­ur­al­istic tone and shed­ding light on the his­tory of pho­to­graphy and cinema in Azerbaijan. Although the expos­i­tion is some­times a little clumsy, I nev­er­the­less found it quite inter­esting. Visually this sec­tion is strongest as well, for we travel with young Garib all over his child­hood vil­lage and are not con­fined to the dark precinct.

Performances are good, although there’s not really much in terms of char­acter devel­op­ment. Garib learns his lesson but it’s only clear from the flash­back and flash­for­ward. Within the pre­cinct, the per­form­ances are pitched a little high, to match the eeri­ness of the situ­ation. Overall, the film was enter­taining without being excep­tional. This is the first Azeri film I’ve ever seen, and I was impressed with the pro­duc­tion values for the most part. But I think I would have been hap­pier to see a film based entirely on Garib’s child­hood rather than trying to graft that coming-of-age story onto a more genre-based psychological/horror story.

By James Mcnally. 2010-12-28