In Azerbaijani cinema, the enduring theme of father and son remains unbroken, despite occasional deviations. This theme resonates deeply, perhaps due to the nation’s traditional familial structure, which often leans toward an authoritative figure, typically embodied by the father, mirroring the authoritative nature of the small state itself.
Asif Rustamov’s “Down the River” immediately harks back to its cinematic precursor through its opening frames. Through music and visuals, viewers are reminded of Huseyin Seyidzadeh’s Turbulent Kura”. We recall Jahandar Agha’s story, where his bigamy sparks a minor conflict with his son. The list of notable fathers in Azerbaijani cinema is extensive, ranging from Rustam in “Big Support” to Yagub in “The Swing of the Coffin Maker.”
Ali (Namig Agayev), the protagonist of the film “Down with the flow”, is a rowing coach. The team of which his son is a member will participate in a crucial competition. As the film progresses, the audience gets to know a strict, self-righteous father, then a husband who is completely fed up with his home and wife, and then with a man who seeks comfort in the bosom of his Polish mistress… This acquaintance continues until he receives the news of the death of his son, whom he kicked out of the team on the day of the competition. After that, Ali begins to get to know himself, that is, another Ali that he had not noticed until now. This acquaintance with himself continues until the end of the film – until he looks at the flowing river with a blood-red mouth and an innocent face.
As Ali searches for the corpse of his son, who is believed to have drowned in the water, he actually searches for father Ali, interrogates him and makes him talk. The film beautifully conveys the message that fatherhood isn’t solely defined by the birth of a child but is truly tested and deepened in the face of a child’s death. It suggests that fathers may even discover new dimensions of their paternal role through such tragic experiences.
In the labyrinthine depths of the water treatment reservoir, the protagonist navigates his inner maze amid the contorted and straightened pipes. These metaphorical images aren’t explicitly highlighted but rather emerge organically from the unfolding events. In Asif’s film, metaphors seamlessly blend into the narrative, flowing with a sense of effortlessness. For instance, consider the scene where Ali is enticed by his lover to embark on a life of dreams, yet he declines the offer. The brightly lit ship sailing away symbolizes the promise of happiness from an external source, contrasting with his internal struggles. Another powerful metaphor occurs during a climactic moment of tension between Ali and his wife Leyla when a corroded pipe in the toilet flushes water. In this intense moment, Ali, unable to bear the pressure, resorts to breaking objects around him using a key. This act signifies a rebellion against himself, a fear of self-discovery, and a reluctance to simply go with the flow of his circumstances.
Indeed, the situation in Ali’s family is far from being one-sided. Each member of the family has constructed emotional barriers in pursuit of their individual happiness. The idea of collective happiness appears unattainable as Ali, Leyla, and Ruslan occupy disparate emotional realms. When these worlds converge, turmoil invariably ensues.
In this complex dynamic, it’s evident that the father, Ali, makes life difficult for his son, just as his son, Ruslan, becomes an impediment to Ali’s pursuit of personal happiness. Ali’s response to his girlfriend, when accused of cowardice after returning from a party, reflects this complexity: “I have a son beside my wife.”
(Perhaps this is why Ali exerts so much pressure on his son? Is this how his frustration with his son manifests?)
The son’s existence poses a hindrance to the father’s contentment, yet the son’s death proves to be an even greater obstacle to it. The expression on Ali’s face conveys a poignant truth: fatherhood can sometimes feel like an unending ordeal, and this sentiment has little to do with his love for his son.
Ali’s recurring dream of entangling a net at the bottom of the water carries a dual significance. On the surface, it reflects his deep concern for Ruslan’s well-being, his son’s condition in the depths of the water. However, on a deeper level, this dream also serves as a manifestation of Ali’s inner turmoil. Ali, despite his desire for freedom, often finds himself ensnared in the complexities of his own life.
Throughout this tumultuous narrative, the mother’s role in the tragedy remains pivotal. She too had placed her relationship with Ali at the forefront within the family, as the ongoing tension and arguments with her husband took precedence over everything else. In a poignant admission, she reflects, “I always feared losing you, but instead, I lost my son…”
Amidst the anguish of losing her son, Leyla, who has even managed to find time to confront her husband’s mistress, gazes down from the window of their home and is met with a scene that fills her with revulsion: the tutor rescues a child from the pool. As Leyla draws back the curtain, her expression speaks volumes—a woman grappling with the painful realization of her inability to protect her own son.
Mehriban Zaki, the actress, lends depth to her performance by infusing her measured speech with additional layers of emotion. In the household, much of the tension revolves around Ali, and the actress’s carefully crafted pauses, with unspoken words, brim with resentment and accusation, accurately mirroring the atmosphere within the family.
In general, the acting in the film is at a level that will carry the entire burden of drama. Nowhere does one component of the film surpass the other – the setting, the music, and the emotion are precisely measured.
This precision ensures that the viewer maintains an ideal distance from the events unfolding on screen – neither too intimately involved nor too distant. Close-ups were deliberately eschewed (cinematographer Ayhan Salar). The film’s music, in keeping with its overall style, manages to encapsulate the spontaneity of the story while maintaining a certain level of detachment. It refrains from overwhelming the audience with sentimentality or exploiting emotions. Instead, its primary function is to enhance the film’s natural flow and sustain the dramatic tension.
This coldblooaded approach, evident in the film’s music, visuals, acting, and the deliberate restraint in scale, serves as a protective barrier for viewers. It ensures that the audience doesn’t get overly caught up in sentiment, allowing them to focus on the tension of the unfolding situation rather than solely on the protagonist’s suffering.
The film doesn’t seek to emotionally manipulate its audience; rather, it encourages viewers to analyze and share in the weight of the narrative, making it a more thought-provoking and intellectually engaging experience. By avoiding emotional exploitation, the film stays true to its core objectives.
“In ‘Down the River,’ there’s a subtle, almost imperceptible undercurrent of sentimentality that involves understanding the father – a kind of ‘forgiving’ of the childishly innocent father, his mouth smeared with blood and raspberry juice. In tandem with the profound tragedy he endures, the protagonist’s inner collision and eventual reconciliation bring about a sense of harmony.
This moment of harmony also signifies the father’s reunion with his son. Following this pivotal moment, Ali is finally able to engage in a normal, tension-free dialogue with his wife, marking a significant shift in their relationship.
Beyond its exploration of social and psychological dynamics, ‘Down the River’ also delves into existential themes. The tragedy experienced by the protagonist is fundamentally existential in nature, setting it apart from earlier films in this genre, as mentioned at the outset of this article. The film’s title choice further underscores this existential perspective.
In essence, ‘Down the River’ injects a fresh perspective into the timeless theme of father and son, which has long been a central focus in Azerbaijani cinema, especially in recent years (‘The Swing of the Coffin Maker,’ ‘The Knot,’ ‘Divine Creature’). From this vantage point, the film prompts discussions about PERSONALITY and FREEDOM, rather than adhering to the conventions of the national or traditional family model.