“Horses are the wings of men.”
Centaur opens with this Kyrgyz proverb about the magic of horse-riding and then proceeds to demonstrate it, visually, as the eponymous horse thief steals a thoroughbred and gallops off into the night, his hands lifted triumphantly into the air. This enchanting opening is the highlight of Aktan Arym Kubat’s excellent drama set in a quiet village in Kyrgyzstan.
After this mischievous bit of horsenapping (the racehorse returns, unharmed, to its owner), the film follows Centaur (not his real name) as he connects with his deaf wife and currently mute son, contemplates an affair with a local woman and plots his next bit of illicit night-time riding. It’s the kind of gentle, thoughtful film that picks up devoted festival audiences but will struggle outside of daring independent cinemas.
Centaur’s relationship with his wife, Maripa, is tenderly portrayed, with Kubat’s camera offering no judgement as he watches them struggle to communicate. The heartbreakingly beautiful Zarema Asanalieva plays Maripa with silent energy; she communicates entirely through sign language, yet manages to express a complex array of emotions with each gesture. Kubat stars in the lead role with an effortless charm that masks a deeper layer of confusion and frustration. These family scenes together are the beating heart of the film, even as more complex ideas get woven into the narrative.
Problems arise when Centaur is caught stealing another horse and the community there has to decide what to do with him. From a purely ethnographic standpoint, it’s fascinating watching the way that the village is tightly bonded and in constant communication with one another. Shame brought on one of them is shame brought on all. It’s here that the film’s most salient theme emerges, as we get under the skin of why Centaur is so determined to ride horses at night time. Conservative Islamic leaders in the village have their own ideas of what to do with the miscreant, but Centaur himself feels a far greater affinity with local traditions and mythology than he does with Allah or his prophet.
Towards the end of the film, Centaur gets bored of a prayer meeting and sneaks into the back of the old cinema to put a film about horseriding on while they pray. The footage, in grainy film stock, recalls the opening scenes of the film. It’s almost like a western, in this sense, revelling in the aesthetic thrill of watching someone ride a horse at full speed. Centaur, ultimately, is a call to embrace and preserve tradition, but it’s also an exquisite piece of cinema that reminds you of the simple magic of a camera, a horse and wide open fields.