Venice 2020 review: In Between Dying (Hilal Baydarov)

When Alberto Barbera announced the competition lineup for the 77th Venice Film Festival, Hilal Baydarov’s In Between Dying was probably the most unexpected inclusion. Best known for his documentaries (including 2019 IDFA winner Mother and Son), In Between Dying is the second feature film for this young Azerbaijani director, a former student at Béla Tarr’s Sarajevo film school. Baydarov’s film shows an intuitiveness and sensitive melancholy seldom seen this early in a director’s career, and heralds the arrival of a singular voice. Elusive, with shades of Parajanov, In Between Dying is at times as impenetrable as the fog rolling through Azerbaijan’s desolate but beautiful landscapes, but this story of a young man in search of love lingers long after the credits roll.

As much driven by narrative as it is by mystique, In Between Dying follows Davud (Orkhan Iskandarli) as he goes through his life cycle in the span of a single day. After killing a man in a kerfuffle over his girlfriend, he embarks on an odyssey through the foothills of the Caucasus with a trio of gangsters, dispatched by a local mobster, hot on his heels. Along the way he meets several women and invariably these encounters end in death, though not at the hands of Davud. In fact, he actually seems to save them before moving on in his quest to find love. Yet when he finally does find it at the place his journey started, it turns out he has come too late.

Separating the ‘chapters’ of his journey are scenes of Davud and a woman in a niqab holding a small child. They share no dialogue, but in voiceover they seem to speak about finding one another. Yet she is also in a sense every woman Davud meets on the road. A rabid girl who has been chained up by her father for years. A woman who sits by the road, watching, to escape the beatings of her drunk and violent husband. A bride fleeing a wedding to a man she does not love. A blind girl who has to bury her mother. The scenes between Davud and this veiled woman (Rana Asgarova, who plays several other roles as well) are among the most poetic in the film, but also among the most cryptic. The woman’s longing for her husband to return is made tangible when Davud finally comes face to face with her. She tells him how she never saw her husband because he immediately went off to war. “What can a woman do but wait?” she says, and this subtly illuminates the power imbalance between men and women in Azerbaijani society, certainly in these rural areas. There is a through line of abuse of women in the film, all directly or indirectly at the hands of men.

It would be a mistake, however, to judge In Between Dying on thematics alone, thereby ignoring its more esoteric components and its meditative qualities. This is as much contemplative cinema as it is narrative, a form that has been pushed aside mostly in Western filmmaking today. Things happen that cannot be rationally explained. In a scene that can only be described as a master class of atmosphere, Davud and the bride he rescued stop by the side of the road and walk into the fog until they are enveloped by it. It is a very evocative scene, purely on a visceral level (something akin to the famous fog scene in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin, and not just because it also involves swirling mist). Strong contributors to this atmosphere are Elshan Abbasov’s stark cinematography, which captures the Azerbaijani countryside in all its bleak and desolate beauty in a perfectly framed wide format, and Kenan Rüstemli’s mesmerizing minimalist score which evokes a strong sense of melancholy. This all makes In Between Dying a sensory and weirdly sensual film as much as a film with a story to tell. It brings life down to its most essential element, love, and does so by making us feel it rather than understand it.