Love story of a Muslim Azerbaijani boy and Christian Georgian girl in Baku from 1918 to 1920.
Adam Bakri, María Valverde, Mandy Patinkin
Set in 1914 at the brink of war, Ali (Adam Bakri) is an educated young Muslim living in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Nino (Maria Valverde) is a Christian girl whose regal family hails from Georgia. Facing all odds against them, Ali proposes marriage to Nino despite family objections, religious divides, and the war – all of which threaten to keep them apart.
This is the first feature film of Asif Kapadia, who usually plies his craft in the form of documentaries. He won an Oscar for his work on the exceptional and tragic biographical account of singer Amy Winehouse’s’ life in Amy and drew critical acclaim for his look at the career of Formula One driver Ayrton Senna in Senna. While Ali and Nino shows promise from Kapadia, there’s a little too much holding it back from being held in the same high regard as his previous work.
What it does get right though is its production design. It oozes lavishness, with every interior shot framed beautifully and dressed with the most luxurious of antiques. Kapadia has a keen eye for striking locations, and he makes the most of them by providing us with eye-catching establishing shots. In fact, it seems like he’s more concerned with these beautifully distracting images than drawing out believable performances from his leads, as their chemistry is rather weak and unbelievable. Valverde and Bakri are serviceable as the star-crossed couple, but there’s nothing in their work here that suggests they are hopelessly in love – just some schoolgirl giggling from Valverde and sweet nothings from Ali.
It doesn’t help that I felt we join the story long after the pair have apparently fallen for each other. Call me a hopeless romantic, but one of my favourite aspects of love stories is seeing how the couple’s relationship blossoms from the beginning. In Ali and Nina, it is more about the struggles that the couple faces in their quest to marry and the problems they face in their joining with the occasional flashback of the pair dancing to fill us in on how they met.
That’s not to say their troubles aren’t worthwhile though – the film takes place just before the beginning of the First World War and deals with Azerbaijan’s independence – it’s just not terribly exciting to watch. It meanders on at a walking pace, with neither of them displaying the urgency required for their supposedly forbidden situation. It’s very much a release which would not seem out of place in 1930s Hollywood, the age of sweeping romantic epics, but even then I feel it would have got lost in the shuffle.
The third act switches up the narrative dynamics, but the character issues from the first two remain. So while Ali and Nino is occasionally a visual treat, it is a love story chained to plot familiarity and largely unconvincing leads.
Meticulous set design
Weak love story