Ali Khamraev’s sleek, stylish film, a modernist political melodrama that earned prizes abroad but official disapproval at home, interconnects the stories of three women struggling with traditional social constraints in post-World War II Uzbekistan. One is an illiterate but very determined young woman committed to building a house even though local custom does not permit it without the approval of her absent husband. Another is a school teacher seeking to bring progressive ideas to a village long subjugated by strict old-fashioned practices. The last is an elderly woman who was kidnapped by a poor peasant in her youth and forced into marriage. A dreamy and impressionistic remembrance set in a hardscrabble world, Khamraev’s Triptych is an underseen achievement in international art house cinema.
Held in high regard by Andrei Tarkovsky but finding official disapproval at home, Ali Khamraev’s Triptych is a doleful political melodrama full of romantic melancholy and a gentle portrait of the changing times faced by his parent’s generation. Opening with a school assembly celebrating the principal’s retirement, the older man’s voice-over narration is reflective, remarking that “our life was hard but honest.” What follows is a glimpse at 1946 Uzebkistan and the lives of three women: Khalima (Dilorom Kambarova), a young and headstrong woman with a young child who has been abandoned by her husband; Sandobar, a bureaucrat looking modernize the community; and Khadicha (Zukhra Abdurakhmanova), an old woman who has spent her life in the village and whose mind returns to her husband’s youthful promises to show her the world. Khamraev explores their lives with dreamy, floating camerawork and an impressionistic, almost episodic approach to narrative, ensuring that the ephemeral nature of memory is never divorced from the film’s content.
Triptych engages obviously and explicitly with Khamraev’s theme of women as the locus of Uzbekistan’s modernization. The principal (Shavkat Abdusalyamov), then a young teacher with progressive ideas for the town and his students, reads to Khalima a composition called “Woman of the East.” The poem remarks “I’m your friend, not your master and you are not a slave” and implores that its subject “take the veil off your heart” and “off your soul.” The film suggests through Khadicha that this unveiling is long desired, as the woman imagines the life of wonders heroically sworn by her sabre-brandishing suitor but never realized. In the space of this yearning for more, Triptych provides room to question what this unveiling means in practice. For Sandobar, this modernization means agency and technological progress in the service of the state, evidenced by her contemporary dress, her official position, and her plans for Khalima to run a small factory where she and other women will sew. In contrast, Khalima wants a job to feed her family but has little interest in Sandobar’s promised position of authority. Her goals are personal, primarily focused on building the home her husband wanted. She has no tolerance for the village official’s objections to her aims and proceeds with the construction undeterred. And she twice rejects her husband: the first time occurring when she tracks him to a remote build site and he attempts a failed card trick rather than discuss his unexplained departure; the second time occurring when he arrives unannounced during her home’s construction. Khamraev presumably lets the teacher have the last word as he tells Sandobar, “Of course you will say that the factory is a public matter, and the house means egoism and private property. But isn’t the private happiness of each person separately the real target of our life?” With shots of Khalima’s family, including her husband, united under the roof she had built, Khamraev’s vision of Soviet progressiveness comes into focus, becoming further nuanced by embracing its collective aims as a means toward personal fulfillment.
The film is presented as a work of memory, a flashback from the present to the past, although its content is obviously not limited to the perspective of the teacher. This jumping off from a single perspective and into something more diffuse might compare to Terrence Malick and The Tree of Life (2011), where a meditative space of personal perspective so directly connects to the material world that it becomes both expansive, becoming so elastic as to touch upon something naturally universal, and transcendent, becoming something truly spiritual in its truth. It the camerawork of Khamraev and his cinematographer Yuriy Klimenko that provides this suggestion of something more, of something greater, moving and floating in a way that declares an unacknowledged presence in these scenes, yet one that often finds itself attending to unexpected details. Frequently, Triptych‘s camera leaves the scene’s subject, often looking up toward ceilings and skies. Even more often, the camera attends to light, particularly the artificial light of electric bulbs, wondering at their almost supernatural power much like Khadicha looks in awe at the improbable amount of light from a large bulb hanging in a home’s central room. These illuminated bulbs becomes symbols of modernity, of possibility, and of inspiration and Khamraev can’t seem to resist the power of a glowing filament or the intangible magic of a lens flare.
An even more ambitious exploration of memory and the changing face of Uzbekistan was still to come from Ali Khamraev, but Triptych is a beautiful work of its own. Khamraev’s ability to let the film breathe through its scenes and stories, sliding effortlessly between them, is masterful. His ability to capture on film the material realities of Uzbek life was already well-established by his earlier works and his knack for action-minded continuity editing is on full display in his Easterns. Triptych approaches storytelling in a decidedly different matter and Khamraev firmly reveals his talent for the poetic.