By Robert Koehler
Shot in a stark, rural patch of Kazakhstan and contained inside the frame of a short story—quite often the best model for a feature screenplay to follow—Mariam tells the tale of a woman, wife, and mother who doesn’t realize that she must change her life until outside forces tell her so. Then, once she has a taste of this new reality, the old life comes rolling back like a bad dream. This is potentially the stuff of a great movie. Mariam, however, isn’t even remotely great, and at times it’s far less than it should be. But first-time writer-producer-director Sharipa Urazbayeva will doubtless acquire the knack of knowing when a scene is over as she makes more features. She is interested in the ways that physical space and the process of time impact character, so she’s naturally drawn to the now-declining international style of the sustained empty frame at the end of a shot or scene, a device that was once revolutionary and is now a full-blown cliché.
Fortunately, this stylistic habit doesn’t fully deflate her story’s power. Mariam and her husband, along with a brood of kids, work a cattle farm, but her problem is immediate: her husband has vanished, meaning that he is either dead, on a serious bender, or a deadbeat runaway. The ensuing sequences suggest all these possibilities, allowing a bit of the energy of a mystery to seep into this slice of kitchen-sink cinema down on the farm. The movie’s rough-hewn quality is both its greatest asset and a hindrance, so it can’t quite conceal when the storyteller is manipulating events. But there’s a secret weapon here in the person of crafty lead actor Muruert Sabbusinova, who doesn’t look like she’s acting at all until the viewer realizes that this is a performer shaping the contours of a woman trying, against all odds, to make her life into something better.