Angel on the Right


Posted to on January 21, 2006


Last night I continued making headway into a backlog of screeners that film publicists had sent me as long as two years ago. While I tend to not write anything about a bad film, it is probably worth saying a word or two about three that I discarded midway through viewing since they demonstrate a kind of malaise in English-language independent film. The fourth, a small jewel from Tajikstan, shines by comparison.


“A Love Song for Bobby Long” stars John Travolta as an aging alcoholic college professor in New Orleans who sits around in a ramshackle and cavernous house with his cronies talking about life and death. Based on a novel by Ronald Everett Capps, it is meant to evoke Tennessee Williams or Carson MacCullers but mostly it evokes yawns. When a movie consists of nothing but conversations, they’d better be pretty damned good conversations. It can be done, of course. “My Dinner With André” was nothing but Wallace Shawn talking with Andre Gregory over dinner. But that was co-written by Shawn and Gregory, two major talents, and directed by Louis Malle. Enough said.


“Stage Beauty” is a historical costume drama based on the life of Ned Kynaston, one of the last male actors to play females in Restoration drama. I assume that it was trying to explore issues of gender in the same fashion as the superlative “Orlando,” another British product. But when a couple of young women introduced themselves to Kynaston as his “biggest fans,” the anachronism was so violently pronounced that I threw myself across the bedroom floor, tore the DVD from the player and set fire to it.


“Beyond the Sea” is directed by and stars Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin. This biopic is a clear effort to break through genre conventions found in the highly overrated “Ray” and “Walk the Line.” It uses all sorts of “breaking the fourth wall” techniques to dig deeper into the lounge singer’s identity. In one scene, as the mature Darin is making a film about himself (a film within the film within the film), he is confronted by himself as a boy. All this gimmickry cannot substitute for a solid script. I’ll let my favorite critic Mr. Cranky have the final word on this: “And here's the real problem: Bobby Darin just doesn't seem that interesting. Spacey wants us to think Darin had some profound influence on music, but I didn't see it. So he made it big with ‘Splish Splash.’ That's not exactly Beethoven's Fifth.”


“Angel on the Right” was written and directed by Jamshed Usmonov. It was filmed in 2002 in his home town in Tajikstan and includes many townspeople in starring roles. By coincidence, the plot is similar to “All for Zucker,” another study of post-Communist life. Like Zucker, the main character Hamro (Maruf Pulodzoda) has huge debts that he is desperate to pay off. Both have very few redeeming qualities, but are transformed after a fashion as they go through their respective ordeals.


Hamro is a small-time gangster who has been lured back from Moscow to his native village under false pretenses. Led to believe that his mother is on her deathbed, he resolves to spend the money necessary to repair her house so she can die in peace--above all she needs a wider front door that can accommodate her coffin. We soon discover that her illness was nothing but an act, something that might have been evident from what the doctor--a willing participant in the ruse--has told him: she is suffering from “acute Oriental acidilipus.”


Hamro’s troubles take a turn for the worse when a posse of local men shows up at his mother’s house with the son he has abandoned. Take him, they demand. When Hamro puts up his fists to fend them off, a martial arts expert they have recruited just for the occasion beats him to a pulp. From that point on, Hamro is tailed around by the sweet-faced boy who he holds at arm’s length. His tentative reconciliation with the boy and his mother unfolds in unexpected ways in a film that is determined to avoid sermonizing of any sort.


The title of the film comes from Moslem lore. It is believed that there is an angel on every human being’s left and right shoulders that respectively record one’s sins and good deeds into a book during a lifetime. If the book of sins is heavier than the book of good deeds, you will go to hell. If vice versa, you go to heaven. It is the strength of Usmonov’s film that one can’t be sure where Hamro is ultimately destined to go. Movies succeed when they can portray human nature in all its complexity. Whatever the shortcomings of this modest film, it surely stands out on the ability to render a singular human being with all his strengths and weaknesses.


The contrast between Usmonov’s film and the three others could not be sharper. One is left with the feeling that there is a kind of inverse relationship between money and art. The more money one has to throw around, the worse the product. It is a sign of the dying culture of Anglo-American imperialism that even films that ostensibly go against the commercial grain are burdened by an inability to deal with the real problems of real people. There are millions of Hamros in the United States and Great Britain who could be the subject of a serious film but somehow directors and screenwriters don’t have the eyes to see them.


“Angel on the Right” is available in DVD at your better video stores and online. It is well worth seeing.