Buta: Film Review

Azerbaijan’s submission to the Academy Awards is a contemporary tale of art and love, told from a child’s point of view.

PALM SPRINGS — Though it has one of the world’s oldest national cinema traditions, Azerbaijan has been invited to submit films to the foreign-language Academy Award competition only since 2006. Buta, its fourth official submission, draws upon folk traditions in a simple contemporary tale, at its center a self-possessed 7-year-old who lives with his grandmother in a mountain village. 

The film didn’t receive an Oscar nomination and is not destined for a high profile on the international theatrical circuit, but it’s sure to find warm welcomes from festival programmers. It screened recently in the Awards Buzz section at Palm Springs. 

Like many films out of neighboring Iran, but without the political edge, screenwriter-director Ilgar Najaf’s debut feature unfolds primarily from a child’s POV. The title is the name of the main character and the word for a design pattern that’s ubiquitous in Azerbaijan art and architecture. What Westerners call a paisley, the buta is derived from Zoroastrianism and is variously interpreted as a flower bud, drop of water, tongue of flame or ovary — a decorative symbol of the essence of life. 

For the little boy Buta, art and life are inextricably linked. In the yard of their modest home, his grandmother dyes yarn in vats of flowers and weaves rugs of striking intricacy, all of which Najaf and his DP, Giorgi Beridze, observe in detail but without fuss. One of her rugs will be a birthday gift for Buta, using colors chosen by his mother before she died. The boy, meanwhile, has been secretly creating an open-air installment piece of sorts, dragging river stones to a mountaintop to form the outline of a giant buta that can be viewed only from the air. 

The gang of boys who claim the river as their territory taunt Buta for being an orphan. The chief bully, Azim, is a pugnacious kid whose combativeness might be a preemptive bid to turn attention from his own mark of difference, albinism, and who berates his little sister for her convention-defying friendship with a boy, Buta. A transparent but nonetheless engaging allegory on war plays out between Buta and Azim. The former fearlessly stands his ground, uncommonly certain of who he is. His vulnerability finds expression only with a mysterious old man who befriends him, and whose connection to Buta’s grandmother is revealed in a scene of heartbreaking understatement. 

In contrast to their ancient tangled history, love blooms forthrightly for the grandmother’s young weaving protégé and a visiting salesman. The villagers have refused his fancy packaged shampoo samples, and his Mercedes truck has gotten stuck in the river, but he eagerly trades his city ways to be with his “angel.”

Najaf has fashioned a modern folktale celebrating the beauty of nature, love and traditional ways. Its naive, child-centric approach can be precious at times, and the orchestral passages of Javnshir Guliyev’s score are overpowering, but for most of its running time Buta is propelled by an engaging directness and lack of pretension. The terrain, both mountainous and flat, is as much a character as any of the villagers, and the closing, transcendent sequence ties them all together through Beridze’s swooping aerial camerawork. 

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival
Production companies: Azerbaijanfilm Studio and Buta Film
Cast: Rafig Guliyev, Tofig Aliyev, Elnur Karimov, Laman Naviyeva, Arzu Isayeva, Bahadur Sefiyev
Screenwriter-director: Ilgar Najaf
Producers: Ilgar Najaf, Xamis Muradov
Director of photography: Giorgi Beridze
Art director: Aziz Mammadov
Music: Javnshir Guliyev
Editor: Guishan Salimova
No MPAA rating, 98 minutes