REVIEW: ‘Homeward’ (2021) Is Ukraine’s Unlikely Road Trip Oscar Nomination

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“The observant lens navigates a gradual conflation of bereftness, a coming together of father and son that is forced by a shared and deeply felt experience of mourning”

The road trip movie has a long-standing place in cinema, from Easy Rider to Thelma and Louise. However, none seem to reach the bleakness that is captured in Ukrainian director Nariman Aliev’s debut feature, Homeward. The father-son border-crossing road trip film is visually beautiful, but its sparse narrative buries the historical reverence that underlies this solemn tale. 

“My son’s body is in the boot,” Mustafa (Akhtem Seitablayev) nonchalantly tells a border patrol officer as he drives to Russian-annexed Crimea to conduct a traditional burial for his son, Nazim (Anatoliy Marempolskiy), a casualty in the Russo-Ukrainian war. In the passenger seat beside the stern Mustafa sits his youngest son Alim (Remzi Bilyalov), the young man heartbreakingly mourning his brother’s death.

The car ride is defined by cold silence and awkward glances, neither knowing how to articulate their loss. Alim seems minutes away from pulling a Lady Bird and throwing himself out of the moving car. Mustafa is willing to sacrifice everything to bury Nazim in Crimea beside his mother’s grave. It is a demand that has him turning against those around him, punishing Nazim’s non-Muslim fiancee, Olesya (Dariya Barihashvili) with a refusal to entertain her funeral plans, and turning aggressive against his own son.

The main connection between Mustafa and Alim is their shared language: Crimean Tatar, the native tongue of the East European Turkic ethnic group. With little other than their familial relationship connecting them, the pair’s journey is tinted by a deep-rooted difference in perspective: Mustafa shoulders the weight of his homeland devastation and is frustrated by how unaffected Alim is by the underlying sociopolitical context of their identities. Aliev — alongside co-writer Marysia Nikitiuk — crafts a poignant narrative that interlaces family and religion, where fury over Russian border conflict passes between generations. The intricacy that Homeward dances around will perhaps prevent a wider appreciation of the film, but with a Cannes premiere and being Ukraine’s Academy Award entry for Best International Film, the film’s cultural poignance is its main grounding. 

Mustafa and Alim are sat together in the car staring at Nazim's lighter which is aflame between them. It's dark and the warmth of the flame lights their faces
Courtesy of New Wave Films – Mustafa and Alim staring at Nazim’s lighter

Desperate to preserve the tradition of culture at the cost of relationship ties, Mustafa is devoid of emotion. His cruelty to the women he encounters solidifies him as a dislikeable figure. Akhtem Seitablayev’s domineering performance embodies a rigidity that says more than his dialogue lets on. As Homeward leans into this masculine negotiation of grief, the film shifts into quicker pacing. It morphs into an action thriller, with car chases and fight scenes that replace the previously downcast tone of the film. Although compelling, this narrative turbulence is Homeward’s main flaw. In its sparseness of plot and the abruptness of conflict, the thematic threads of lingering mourning and ever-present familial conflict are what hold Homeward together.

While Homeward’s narrative flow is occasionally disrupted, the film’s visuals are stunning. Anton Fursa’s intricate cinematography cradles Homeward with a natural allure, astonishing rural landscapes and wide spans of country herald the paths through which Mustafa and Alim drive. Fursa’s sharp focus finds both men, whether it be with the spotlight of car headlights or the soft rays of the setting sun. His agile camera swoops between intimately quiet scenes and dramatic action as smoothly as a bird soaring through the film’s sparse landscapes. The observant lens navigates a gradual conflation of bereftness, a coming together of father and son that is forced by a shared and deeply felt experience of mourning.

As Alim sits in the passenger seat, flicking his brother’s lighter monotonously, there is an unspoken contemplation of identity and belonging which pervades Aliev’s sincere film. Alim represents a younger generation, one detached from their Crimean Tatar roots but definitely not abandoning them all together. It is this nod to how one’s generational belonging can momentously define the present that makes Homeward a heartfelt and earnest film.

Director: Nariman Aliev

Writer: Nariman Aliev and Marysia Nikitiuk

Producer: Vladimir Yatsenko

Starring: Akhtem Seitablayev, Remzi Bilyalov, Dariya Barihashvili

Release: April 23rd

All Images Courtesy of New Wave Films