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Angel On The Right
cast: Uktamoi Miyasarova, Maruf Pulodzoda, Kova Tilavpur, Mardonqul Qulbobo, and Maljqat Maqsumova

director: Djamshed Usmonov

89 minutes (12) 2002
widescreen ratio 1.77:1
Tartan DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Andrew Hook
Set in Tadjikistan, the title comes from an Islamic fable wherein we are born with an angel on each shoulder, one of whom notes our good deeds and the other our bad. The angel on the left of central character Hamro (Maruf Pulodzoda) must have gone through a few pens by the time we see him, as Hamro is a thoroughly nasty piece of work with no redeeming features. Returning to his native village after a 10-year exile in Moscow, his thuggish personality and general disregard for others finally catches up with him as he faces a dying mother (Miyasarova), his ten-year-old illegitimate son he never knew he had, and a motley crew of ruffians intent on settling those debts he left behind.

Sounds like the basis for a morality tale? Well, it really isn't as simple as that. Usmonov gives us no easy answers as Hamro stumbles through the movie, getting beaten and stabbed along the way. The reason for his return, to tend to his dying mother, is revealed as a ruse: his mother and the mayor have conspired to bring him home so that he can settle his debts and fix up his mother's property. And Hamro learns little from his journey - there is no saccharine-filled father-son reunion to be had here. The boy is given as rough a treatment as the rest of the characters, although those moments where the boy does try to appease his father are quite touching.

The movie works best as an insight into the Tadjikistan way of life. The characters have little control over their lives, which are effectively pre-determined by poverty, politics and religion. At the beginning of the movie the mother eavesdrops on an argument at a funeral where a priest refuses to bury a suicide on holy ground as only God has the right to take a life. This unimpeachable fact pervades the movie. When Hamro leaves the village he has neither added nor subtracted from it. Life goes on in much the same way as before. And his mother's nurse, no doubt pregnant with another bastard child after succumbing to Hamro's bullish advances, completes the cycle.

Whilst the futility of avoiding fate is a theme, there is a remarkable moment during the film where the mother meets with the mayor and effectively chooses her time to die by swapping her death date with his own mother's. This detail, so subtle and unobtrusive that one might miss it, cuts a comic swathe through village bureaucracy and power. It also underlines the movie with a wry poignancy.

The film is beautifully shot, and the authentic village scenes add much to its impact. The pace is, however, a little slow, and my attention wandered at times. Slice of life movies from Eastern Europe are fairly commonplace (one imagines budgets leave them few options), and Angel On The Right doesn't add a great deal to the genre. Nevertheless, the movie is worth watching for realistically depicting the irredeemable personality of its subject. However, for those seeking out disc extras; be aware that only a trailer makes it onto the DVD. The language is Tajik with English subtitles.
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