The Road to Mother - film review

★★★

Directed by: #AkanSatayev

Written by: #TimurZhaksylykov

Starring: #AdilAkhmetov, #AltynaiNogherbek, #AruzhanJazilbekova

Film Review by: Kirsty Asher

Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world, with terrain as hugely diverse as its cultural heritage and political history. Its vastness could only be encapsulated in such a sweeping epic as this film, The Road to Mother (2016). This incredible story of a boy separated from his mother and the woman he loves takes its audience across the great expanse of Eurasia over the course of nearly nine decades.

The 90 minute film is based on a true story – that of Ilyas (Adil Akhmetov) who as a boy sees his family torn apart amidst the dashed hopes of Stalin’s Five Year Plan to collectivise farming. It is narrated by the grandson of Ilyas in the present day, as told to a classroom of students.


In the opening scenes the actor Bolat Abdilmanov has a brief but blistering role as Yeraly, a tempestuous rebel leader and horse thief who refuses to bow to the enforced uniformity of Soviet rule, and who storms Ilyas’ village, warning the community that this new regime will not bring the bright future they were promised. Yeraly, with his fierce countenance and strict gangster morals, strikes a Genghis Khan-like figure and he seems to represent the last dying flame of Old Kazakhstan, of fearless horsemen riding across the steppes even as the twentieth century rumbles into relentless modernisation. His character arc plays a significant part in marking the turning point from the status quo to the fractured regime which cost Kazakhstan 50% of its population during the man-made famine of 1930-33. This also marks the moment Ilyas’ life is changed forever, as he sets out with Yeraly and his uncle Lupkan, a reluctant member of the rebel group. From here, he is taken to the eternal bustle of Istanbul, at the very edge of Eurasia, before ending up in a Russian orphanage where he faces racism and aggression from the Slavic boys, and eventually becoming a decorated World War II hero.


It’s fascinating and slightly depressing to behold the whitewashing of traditional Kazakh culture in favour of the monoculture of Soviet Russia, as made evident in the evolving costume and production design, but nevertheless there are small symbols of nostalgic hope dotted through the narrative and mise-en-scene which do well to counter this: Young Ilyas marvels at a flower growing from a stone in the village well with his childhood sweetheart Oumit (played in adulthood by Aruzhan Jazilbekova) and later carves it into the stone wall of a prison cell to remind himself of the beauty to be found in dark places. Or the traditional Kazakh tuzkeez (nomadic wall hangings) that brighten Oumit and Ilyas’ mother Miriam’s bland modern flat during the bleak war years, and serve as their token reminders of home.


Perhaps the greatest symbol of love and hope is Ilyas’ mother Miriam, played with dignified resolve and heartfelt emotion by Altynai Nogherbek. While Ilyas’ life churns him across the continent, and his impulsive actions drive him further from home, Miriam is the steady anchor at the centre of this story who never loses faith or hope that, one day, her son will return to her. Ilyas may be the central protagonist, but Miriam is the heart of this tale.


A monumental retelling of such a drawn-out tale was always going to have the heavy task of closing the film in a satisfying way, and ultimately the ending felt too rushed and oversimplified for a story with such a wealth of themes and historical context. Nevertheless, this film is undoubtedly a fitting showcase for the cinematic talent in contemporary Kazakhstan and pays grand homage to the twentieth century story of this nation. For that, it is highly commended.