The bombastic English title might sound like it describes some comic book sci-fi epic, but in “Shyrakshy: Guardian of the Light” our hero does not wear a cape but a weathered cap, and the light he guards is not an interstellar death ray but the flickering beam of a battered old movie projector. Prominent Kazakh writer-director Yermek Tursunov returns to the festival circuit with this Shanghai-competing delight: a film that in its way is as charmingly old-fashioned as the beloved Chaplin, Keaton and Johnny Weissmuller classics it celebrates.
Movies about the movies, and more specifically about kindly old men passing on their eccentric cinephilia to a younger generation despite the march of mass-produced progress, are not a new phenomenon. But this Kazakhstan-set itinerant “Cinema Paradiso” distinguishes itself by its earnest desire to satisfy the same naive hunger for story and spectacle that got us all addicted to the movies in the first place. In the film, the rural audiences of mid-’70s Kazakhstan are vocal about their preferences: “Give us a love story!” shouts one. “No, an animal picture — I want to laugh at the monkeys” insists another. And just as one-man traveling cinema Tarzan (Murat Mukazhanov), so named after his patrons’ favorite film, tries his best to give the people what they want, so too does Tursunov, melding genres and moods, from war story to romance to comedy to tragedy, to deliver a blunt, broad, episodic adventure — the kind of film we’re fond of saying that people don’t make anymore.
It begins, unexpectedly enough, in Germany in 1945, where a Kazakh soldier is seeing some spectacularly mounted action as part of a Soviet detachment fighting the Battle of Berlin. Buildings explode, tanks open fire, burning men fall from balconies and the soldier even gets to cradle a dying comrade in his arms. This introduction is so lavishly staged that it seems like “Shyrakshy” might actually be a war movie, one designed to foreground the participation of those parts of the world — like Central Asia — that we seldom consider when thinking about the World Wars. But all this Sturm und Drang is just a prologue that culminates in the soldier sparing a shellshocked elderly German man’s life, and being gifted a portable projector and some old movie prints in recompense.
Back in Kazakhstan, the soldier discovers that his pretty wife, presuming him dead after his long absence, has remarried and moved away. He hefts the heavy projector bag onto his shoulder and sets off on the road. Thirty years later he’s still on the move; now the projector sits in a bicycle sidecar, and the nomadic ex-soldier, deeply tanned and wrinkled, has earned his nickname cycling from village to village to screen (and often re-screen) one of his small store of movies. But he’s not just a projectionist; he narrates the action too, often re-scripting entire sections in line with his own woolly conception of what the foreign dialogue means. And so Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet,” introduced as “a story in which good wins out in the end,” gets a Kazakh-style makeover and even a little autobiography, as Tarzan claims that Queen Gertrude married Claudius so quickly because she had grown tired of her husband during his long wartime absences.
Warmly photographed by Martin Sechanov, who finds as much rich interest in the faces of the watching farmers and stall owners as he does in the breathtaking, stark grandeur of the Kazakh countryside, the film is unfussily linear in construction. It bounds from episode to episode, under the folksy lone instrumentation of Kuat Shildebayev’s score, wearing its heart on its sleeve, none too concerned with anything but the broadest and most easily communicable emotions. Tarzan bonds with a young boy who is enchanted by the ramshackle pageantry of the old man’s life; he is embarrassed when, sight unseen, he plays a new “movie about a dog” and it turns out to be Luis Bunuel’s eye-slicing classic “Un Chien Andalou”; he is perturbed by the arrival of modernity in the shape of a community club that will show nothing but new movies. We even get a little slapstick, when Tarzan is dragged reluctantly on a blind date with doughty widow Katira (a wonderful Nina Ussatova) where he comically fails to slaughter a sheep.
Lots of thing happen to him, but right until the heart-tugging climax (we’ve laughed, we’ve sighed, we’ve thrilled, and so we’re obviously going to cry too) Tarzan remains a gorgeously simple and oddly contented character, the kind of man who takes advantage of a rainstorm to wash the clothes he’s wearing. And as he is, so is “Shyrakshy” — not high art, perhaps, but sweeping, sincere, sentimental entertainment, with a generosity of spirit as wide as the Kazakh steppe and a heart made not of gold but of crackling, magical celluloid.