“Enigmatic” doesn’t begin to describe Hilal Baydarov’s “In Between Dying,” a koan-like story that follows a day in the life — or the life in a day — of a young man searching the empty Azerbaijan countryside for love (specifically that of his wife and child, whose faces he’s never seen), and bringing death with him wherever he goes. Or is he searching the winding roads and shallow valleys of his homeland for death, and bringing love to all of the strangers he encounters along the way? Such broadly philosophical questions saturate the still and expectant atmosphere of Baydarov’s seventh film in the last two years (his first “narrative” feature since 2018’s “Hills Without Names”), their answers as uncertain as two distant figures walking through a thick sea of mist.
But for all of its elusiveness, “In Between Dying” is a film that wants to be found. It’s opaque, to be sure — it opens with a poem written by a six-year-old about a teacher looking for a lost class of students in a hallway with 1,000 doors, and Baydarov never so much as knocks on any of them — but not in a way that feels impenetrable or forbidding. Prologue aside, this thing is more accessible than any of the Andrei Tarkovsky masterpieces that inspired Baydarov’s transcendental vision, and a hell of a lot shorter than the Nuri Bilge Ceylan movies evoked by the slow path it wends through its gray landscapes.
In fact, it would be a severe mischaracterization to even suggest that “In Between Dying” has anything to hide; so much as it’s discernibly about anything, Baydarov’s ethereal, intoxicating, semi-guided meditation of a movie is about revealing our world for the aspects of it that people tend overlook in plain sight. Cinema may be a visual medium, but one that’s often wasted on visible things. Here, on the other hand, is a wispy but arresting piece of work from a filmmaker who’s fascinated by the camera’s ability to trace the outlines of the things we can’t see for ourselves — the negative images of life itself.
The only thing we know about Davud (played by Baydarov’s usual avatar Orkhan Iskandarli with implosive urgency and dashes of remarkable warmth) is that he blames his couch-bound mother for not summoning him back home from university in time to say goodbye to his father before he died. When he kills someone with their own gun in the following scene — an impulsive reaction to being insulted as a drug addict — we don’t know if this sort of thing is routine for Davud, or if he’s spiraling away from a more stable equilibrium. Either way, he’s now a man on the run, and spends the rest of the movie scootering away from the three henchmen who follow his trail like a guilty conscience.
It’s a trail that offers a small handful of beguiling pit stops, each defined by a different, visually obscured woman waiting to be saved from a lifetime of subjugation (actress Rana Asgarova plays at least three of these characters, as well as the unseen wife who calls to Davud via disembodied voiceover between each segment). But the first such encounter our man has is with a girl (Kubra Shukurova) who’s been chained in her father’s barn for five years, and claims to be rabid since bitten by a dog 10 days earlier.
These ugly details are only mentioned in passing, and Baydarov’s long sequence shots and fixed panoramas are complicated only by their contexts; the action we see is limited to an unexpected hug or faraway wrestling match, and the spaces where these things take place are as unbothered by what happens in them as a screen is by what’s projected on it. The world is a colorless and objective prism, and people are the light that refracts through it. Every section of the film ends with someone lying dead in Davud’s wake, but it doesn’t seem to feel that way. When the henchmen catch up with the rabid girl and find her father’s lifeless corpse lying in the dirt beside her (fresh teeth marks where some of his flesh should be), she tells them that Davud “left behind love, not death.” It won’t be the last time a body leaves behind two very different stories about what might have happened to it, or that actions create strange melodies with the consequences that result from them. Justice is one of the few concepts that Baydarov’s characters actually discuss outright, though its subjectivity is the closest thing they find to a consensus on the subject. “Everyone is honest,” someone opines. Even lies are true to human nature.
For all of the Big Questions it asks, “In Between Dying” feels as if made with a certain humility, and it asks to be watched in much the same way. Nothing here is “religious” in nature, but there’s a definite spirituality to the way the voiceover seems to reach beyond the world as we know it, and how the constant shimmer on the soundtrack makes the whole feel like it’s reverberating through a stained glass window. And the distance that Baydarov keeps has a satisfying way of splitting the difference between allegory and drama; Davud’s encounter with a woman on the side of the road could easily have become “The Parable of a Road Watcher” (to borrow the title she assigns to herself), but the fight that ensues between her abusive husband and the good samaritan who motors by is shot with a disinterested weight that keeps these events grounded to the Earth — that stops them from floating away into the firmaments of… let’s call it wankery.
While the air grows a bit thin during some of its later segments as the movie circles back around to where it started, “In Between Dying” maintains a centrifugal force that should hold the attention of anyone who’s willing to go along for the ride, and it does so by consistently affording the story’s abstractions with the same presence (even physicality) as it does the road that Davud travels down. If Baydarov insists upon anything, it’s that the intangibles of our existence aren’t really abstractions at all, but rather the very water in which we swim. If life is just what happens in between dying, this spare and open-ended 88-minute film makes an equally cogent argument that death is just what happens between living. Whatever you’re able to find in the margins isn’t Baydarov’s concern, only that you recognize how much there is to see.
“In Between Dying” premiered in Competition at the 2020 Venice International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.