Currently playing at New York’s Film Forum before what one hopes will be a successful national release, Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Cannes award-winner Tulpan is a cinematic rarity, and truly a wonder to behold. A story of nomadic shepherds living on the brutal, gloriously beautiful steppes of Kazakhstan, Tulpan’s as unforced and graceful as a Renaissance oil, and it deftly avoids all the potential traps of exoticization a narrative like this opens up. If you fear yet another international co-production exercise in dusty impoverished tedium, or a twee ethnography filled with mooning children and extraneous animal cameos, think again—Tulpan, for all its kids and camels, is also a mystical love story, a complex family drama, a veterinary medical mystery capped by a miracle and a sideways portrait of a new nation undergoing birthing pains. From poor places comes one of the richest films of the year.
Though the word remains untranslated in the film’s English subtitles, Tulpan—the title of Sergei Dvortsevoy’s first dramatic feature—means “tulip.” It is also, of course, the name of the object of protagonist Asa’s desire, a beloved glimpsed only once, through the slats of a goat-pen (and not at all by the viewer). “God, is she beautiful!” exclaims Asa, a former sailor who dreams of being a shepherd with a flock, family, and yurt of his own on the vast flatlands of the Betpak-Dala (also known as the Hunger Steppe) of southern-central Kazakhstan. No tulip will grow here, so Asa scratches a crude drawing of one into the dry earth of the steppe, and later, with a ballpoint pen, he draws one on the underside of the collar of his sailor’s uniform, where he has similarly depicted all the things he longs for.