There is something very old fashioned about Ali and Nino, Asif Kapadia’s sprawling epic based on the true star-crossed romance between a Muslim Azerbaijani man and a Christian woman from Georgia during World War I. This classic style of filmmaking could have been nostalgic, but instead ends up feeling a bit stale. Though there was certainly potential for inserting modern relevance into the story, especially given the unity between Christian and Muslim characters, Kapadia’s film stays tied to the past in a way that is almost obtuse.
Prior to the start of World War I, Ali (Adam Bakri) and Nino (María Valverde) are teenagers both living in the city of Baku, despite being from different cultures. At the time Azerbaijan was a part of the Russian Empire, and the start of the war pulled Ali into the conflict. The Russian surrender then exposed the Baku people to the attacks of the Bolsheviks, further complicating the lives of Ali and Nino.
The difficulties brought by the war are actually less of a hindrance to the romance between Ali and Nino than other factors. Even their religious differences are not as much of a problem as one might expect from the initial premise and modern political parallels. The larger issues come from far more common situations involving jealousy, when a friend of Nino’s parents (Mandy Patinkin and Connie Nielson) abducts her in an effort to take Nino as his own bride. Even though Ali rescues her in time, Nino’s reputation is damaged by the possibility that she was raped. Ali does not care about her tarnished image, but the pair still must elope in the secluded Persian countryside to avoid the controversy and objections of their parents.
Nino must also adjust to the lifestyle adjustment, going from being a Western woman to an Eastern bride. Unable to leave the home uncovered, and largely treated like a foreigner in her own home, Nino eventually convinces Ali to move them back to civilization. They go from having cultural difficulties to problems finding peace in a world at war. Rather than giving the lovers at the center of this romance just one problem, the narrative seems to have an endless supply of struggles to force upon them. While it creates an ever-changing landscape, the film also lacks a cohesive theme to carry through each section.
The romance and period drama of the film has all of the makings of a classic, but it feels a bit too emotionally detached to ever be truly effective. Although all of the pieces are there, the story just seems to go through the motions. Whether it is a lack of chemistry between the leads or simply an unsentimental screenplay, we never truly feel the stakes of their romance. Intellectually, the film doesn’t have much to say, and emotionally it feels more perfunctory than personal.
The DVD release is without special features.
Entertainment Value: 5/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 6/10
Historical Significance: 4/10
Special Features: 0/10