Ali & Nino is the story of Azerbaijani democracies that could have been but weren’t for seventy years because of greed. First, Azerbaijan almost joined with Armenia and Georgia to become the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic in 1918 just before what is now called the March Days Massacre. Then, shortly after Russia disintegrated during WWI, Azerbaijani nationals formed the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. This was the first parliamentary republic in the Muslim world. It supported religious freedom for equal rights for both men and women. It existed for just short of two years before the Soviet troops invaded the country for its rich oil fields and folded it into the Soviet Union. Azerbaijan didn’t regain its independence again until 1991 when the Soviet Union finally fell.
Ali & Nino is also a romance between a young Muslim man, Ali, and a young Christian woman, Nino. Their story is a metaphor for the political tides that rocked Azerbaijan during the nineteen-teens. The film is based on a worldwide, bestselling book by the same name that has been translated into over thirty languages and is regarded by many as a literary masterpiece. It is considered the national novel of Azerbaijan.
Because this story is a metaphor for what happened to Azerbaijan between 1918 and 1920, the characters are flat. They symbolize ideologies, factions, and hopes. What happens to them is narratively convenient. Characters’ reactions to certain events are narratively nonsensical. That is because this is not a story like the ones we typically see at the movies, and these are not characters like the ones that fill typical stories. Ali & Nino is all emblem and symbol.
Once you realize this, you can look past the ways this film doesn’t conform to our expectations of what a period epic should be and notice the ingenious ways the narrative incarnates these historical events in these characters and the brilliant ways director Asif Kapadia (Senna, Amy) depicts these moments. So, instead of showing the March Days Massacre, the story imposes a love triangle on the narrative. Ali and another man vie for Nino’s hand in marriage (Nino represents the potential for peace throughout) and end up killing each other, ruining the chance for a peaceful union between Azerbaijan (whom Ali symbolizes) and Russia. Later, Ali & Nino finally wed, and their blissful life together in the mountains that anchors the middle of the film is a kind of fantasy sequence showing what could have been if only the political powers of the world hadn’t been so greedy for Azerbaijan’s oil. (This fantasy is repeated later.) We see a more rigidly fundamentalist Iran begin to rise in power, and when the USSR finally invades Azerbaijan, we see the man who represents a more moderate though still devout form of Islam shot in the head.
Once you start looking for these metaphorical moments, they are everywhere throughout the film. Ali & Nino is a rewarding filmgoing experience, but only if you’re open to a non-traditional narrative. It’s also a challenging film, because the greed that so clearly motivates the actions of all the story’s villains still motivates the actions of political powers today throughout the world. Ali & Nino ought to make us tremble as its symbolic characters tremble in grief as their once-promising democratic republic is lost.