Ukraine's pick for Academy Award consideration, Homeward, proceeds from a stock arthouse set-up: an estranged father and son, obliged by circumstance to make a road trip together. Yet it's destabilised, and eventually knocked some way off the usual routes, by what's in the back of the car: the body of a second, older son, a soldier killed in the country's ongoing border conflict with Russia, and now being driven from Kiev to the Crimea for traditional Tatar burial. The father is Mustafa (Akhtem Seitablayev), in his forties and still youthful-looking but sternly forbidding, like a Gael García Bernal who's been bulked up and had the playfulness drilled out of him by decades of military training. When he visits his bereaved daughter-in-law, it's not to offer condolences, but to retrieve his boy's copy of the Koran; something clicks in our understanding of him when we learn his intention is to bury his son next to the grave of his own late wife. In the meantime, he grips the steering wheel and ploughs onwards, a simmering mass of long-held grudges and resentments. The widow stole his boy away from the family; his youngest has committed a similar betrayal by striking out for the city and university, and changing the entire way he speaks. In the passenger seat, the open-faced Alim (Remzi Bilyalov) clearly just wants to return to his studies, the new life he's made for himself, and for the blood and embalming fluids to stop leaking pungently out through the makeshift shroud in which they've wrapped the corpse. But duty calls: for the time being, these two are stuck in the same vehicle, on the same trajectory, with their only real connective tissue rotting away in the zinc coffin behind them.
What follows demonstrates a mix of impulses and influences: it's always lively and involving, and also the work of a filmmaker (28-year-old Nariman Aliev, who co-wrote with Marysia Nikitiuk) who's clearly still figuring out what kind of filmmaker he wants to be. Homeward opens on a frosty Tarkovsky landscape, the first of several that appear whenever the pair pull over (cinematographer Anton Fursa does quietly revelatory work on these backroads); a one-sided conversation with a mechanic on the subject of the region's history set me in mind of Theo Angelopoulos. It can be sentimental, as in some business with the dead brother's retrieved lighter, but it's also capable of being properly flinty. When father and son begin to bond, as movie lore insists they must, it's over the most effective way to wield a knife, and followed by a sequence in which they set out to avenge themselves on the local kids who allegedly robbed Alim. Even that lighter is eventually used to start a fire. The volatility of the direction suits the story, to some degree: like Alim, Aliev is weighing himself against the great men who've gone before him, and realising just what a burden that can be. Everyone's on a journey here. (An aside: why is that burden felt so much more by filmmakers from this region? Andrei Zvyagintsev's early work was so in thrall to Tarkovsky it could only play like pale imitation.) Arguably, the narrative is a little too dependent on how gruff Mustafa is going to be scene by scene: as written, he's as changeable as the wind, laying siege to a checkpoint one moment, merrily flying a kite the next. But this is where Seitablayev comes in, skilfully separating out a fascinating character into complex individual, unsuitable role model, and vulnerable flesh-and-blood. The film gets weightier as it rolls along, and it's striking to witness a filmmaker wrestling so seriously and sincerely with what it means to be a man - especially at a time when such pursuits have been deemed unfashionable or surplus to requirements, and in a part of the world where the Russians have long dictated the terms.
Homeward is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.