According to former cop and convicted kidnapper Davud, an old legend about guiding cranes home through dark forests with carefully placed lanterns also serves as a trap for hunters to locate them. It is an apt metaphor for both characters and Crane lantern (‘Durna Cıragı‘) itself, the second outing of Azerbaijani writer-director Hilal Baydarov in about a year, after the Venice arc of Between two deaths in 2020.
Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas and actor Danny Glover return as producers on some fairly familiar material. If it wasn’t already clear in his first two feature films, Crane Lantern cements Baydarov’s place among the most ethereal and existential artists in current cinema, one who goes aggressively in the opposite direction of linear storytelling. Baydarov quickly created a cinematic brand (for lack of a better word) for himself, inspired by his former teacher Bela Tarr and marked by stories steeped in legend (like Siddhartha’s tale from Dying), protagonists named Davud, long still shots of the battered land of Azerbaijan and poetic voice-overs that many would consider pretentious. Just as many would call Baydarov’s work dreamy and fascinating, and it will carry Crane lantern more than its fair share of festivals after its world premiere in Tokyo.
The bottom line
Like a lot of poetry, a proposition to love or to leave.
The plot, as it stands, is a series of carefully crafted quasi-vignettes, in which law student Musa (Elshan Abbasov) examines the case of an abductor, Davud (a Baydarov regular, Orxan Iskandarli) , in detention for kidnapping four women, none of whom want to press charges. Encounters between Musa, Davud, and his ostensible victims take place in impeccably composed forest idylls, shimmering, grasshopper-strewn oil fields, rocky Central Asian deserts, and abandoned buildings that often reflect internal thoughts and emotions. , although the thoughts and emotions they reflect remain unclear.
The women kidnapped by Davud are also the channels through which the big ideas of the film are examined, ideas ranging from crime, justice and retribution to the nature of reality (imprinted on almost every shot), love and l humanity – itself an unspoken question, expressed by almost all the characters when reciting verses from a line: “I am human, and nothing in being human is foreign to me.” There is a fluidity in their identities; only some are identified by name, giving universality to the themes. Baydarov doubles this common point by directing his actors – Nigar Isayeva, Sada Hasanova, Aytakin Mirisova and Rana Asgarova – to new heights of shared melancholy, often shot in bright close-ups. They are convinced that Davud has improved their life in one way or another, even though he exists on the periphery of their memories.
The theatricality of the spaces chosen by Baydarov and the frequent poetic reflections combine to create an almost supernatural tone that blurs the line between truth and illusion, and inevitably raises the question of whether Davud is a con artist or whether there is some degree of wisdom in his philosophical ramblings. Is he really enlightened in a way that Musa and his captives are not?
This is not a question Baydarov cares to answer, and it is not particularly necessary, given that Crane lantern is another almost impressionistic visual poem, seeming to exist out of time. Baydarov essentially abandons the modest narrative structure of Between two deaths in favor of austere, admittedly beautiful images and a haunting score (by Kenan Rustamli) that forges the mood rather than the action, using voice-over meditations instead of dialogues. The director is his own cinematographer, and his documentary eye is prominently displayed, gracefully switching between blocky geometries and lush nature as poetry demands. Baydarov may have a ways to go before he catches up to Tarr’s level of elegance, but he’s certainly hesitant to take on the role of master.