Director: Jamshed Usmonov
Tajikistan, the present day. Kamal, twenty years old, completely undresses in front of a doctor. He married his childhood sweetheart three months ago, but has been unable to consummate the marriage. Kamal sees on a woman on a train and is immediately intrigued. She meets her husband and child at the station. He sees another woman on a bus, Vera. Their hands accidentally brush, but he moves his hand to touch hers. Kamal follows her at a safe distance to where she works.
Kamal visits his cousin, Said, who is married but unfaithful. Said hires prostitutes for them both, but Kamal is unable to make love. He waits for a long time at the bus stop he saw Vera alight; finally she arrives. Vera takes Kamal home and they sleep together. The next morning, Vera’s husband is waiting. A small time criminal, he forces Kamal to work with him. Vera left her husband after their child died. She wants nothing to do with him. He still wants her back. Vera’s husband and Kamal burgle a wealthy house but are interrupted by the owners. Vera’s husband kills the man and rapes the woman. Kamal shoots Vera’s husband dead. He returns to Vera and they make love. Kamal then leaves, presumably to return home.
Almost certainly the sole Tajik director to have attracted any attention in the West, Jamshed Usmonov’s ‘To Get To Heaven First You Have To Die’ is a mysterious, disturbing thriller than has been compared to Kieslowski’s ‘A Short Film About Love’ and is certainly more sinister than the director’s previous pair of comedy-dramas ‘Flight of the Bee’ (1998) and ‘Angel On My Right’ (2002).
Its pre-titles sequence feels like black comedy of the most embarrassing kind; a young man slowly undresses until fully naked whilst being examined by a doctor before they both discuss the young man’s impotence, which has prevented him consummating his recent marriage. No doubt it’s Kamal’s sexual problems that makes his following behaviour seem harmless. Whilst he might follow a number of women around, we’re aware that nothing dangerous can come of it. One woman mentions “you’re too young, you’re too strange” to thwart his advances; another takes advantage of his offer of assistance – she asks him to carry her groceries up several flights of stairs, when finally, her husband gives him a gruff send-off. We’re never sure why Kamal acts this way. Is he searching for the perfect woman who can rid him of his affliction? It’s just one of many questions the audience might pose during the film that seldom gets answered.
At this stage, Usmonov’s film watches like a Central Asian equivalent of a Todd Solondz film, complete with concentrated teasing about his impotence from his unfaithful, sexually voracious cousin, Said (who tells the prostitute who Kamal was unable to make love to, that he still wants something in return) yet he pulls the rug out from underneath our feet by completely changing the path the film has taken thus far. When Kamal awakes in Vera’s bed, it’s left open-ended about what might have taken place, although Kamal himself clarifies later. The arrival of Vera’s husband into the picture transforms the tone of the film completely, entering much darker territory.
Blackmailed into assisting Vera’s husband with his life of petty crime by reiterating over and over that he wanted to kill him as he saw him asleep with his wife; a threat that he know wouldn’t be idle, Kamal finally learns what it is to become a man, although whether this journey is convincing or just another example of art-house machismo is left open to interpretation. Kamal reveals his impotence to Vera’s husband, as a means of informing him that he never committed adultery with his wife, which makes the behaviour of Vera’s husband, both physically and sexually violent, all that much more of an eye-opener for Kamal, as if Vera’s husband is demonstrating that this is how a real man acts (he goads the husband he kills for not being a ‘real man’).
Kamal’s catharsis, by killing Vera’s husband and then making love to her, has shades of the Oedipal myth about it but seems an ultimately morally dubious means of finally shedding his impotence. We understand that Vera’s husband himself was a deeply objectionable individual, with the rape of the helpless wife the final straw, but it his murder any kind of justice? Or is Usmonov making a profoundly pessimistic statement about the inherently violent nature of man? For Kamal to become a man, must he become like Vera’s husband or Said? Usmonov leaves the film unresolved and open to interpretation. There’s to be no happy ending between Kamal and Vera. Perhaps she was just a means for him to reach maturity. It could have been any of the women he was intrigued by and followed – it just so happened that Vera led him on the most liberating journey of all. We’re to assume to Kamal is about to return home to his wife, whom he never see but her presence is both constant and vital. Will this experience encourage him to live a ‘normal’ life with her? There’s no simple answers in a film that promotes uncertainty at every moment.
For a low-budget film cast with unknowns and relatives, and using a sparse, semi-improvised script, there’s no doubting that Usmonov has impressed with the resources available to him. The work of the experienced French cinematographer and editor who both worked on Usmonov’s previous features is impressive and the director himself captures a cool, clinical aesthetic that Tarkovsky, Bresson and Ceylan have all made their trademark. That said, ‘To Get To Heaven First You Have To Die’ works well when it explores the aimless, rootless existence of the young Kamal as he seeks to explore the problems of his impotence, nicely injected, whether deliberately or not, with touches of humour, but as the tone shifts into thriller mode, it persuades us less. Certainly an imperfect film, though it’s degree of ambition shouldn’t be overlooked.