Venice 2020 Review: Hilal Baydarov’s “In Between Dying” Offers the Great Comfort of Strangers

“An unusual man,” one of the three henchmen following Davud (Orkhan Iskandarli) report back to their boss known only as the Doctor (Murvat Abdulazizov) in “In Between Dying,” a curiously captivating drama that’s title takes on more power as it wears on. Indeed, it’s hard to make heads or tails of the twentysomething it follows, introduced by director Hilal Baydarov in a barren field where he’s as open about his desperation to leave as the land appears before him, and out of nowhere, he emerges to kill an employee of the Doctor’s, not long after the local crime lord dresses down his lieutenant, inspiring suspicion about whether Davud has been invited to knock off an inconvenient employee or actually taking an aggressive action towards the syndicate.

It’s a question Baydarov and co-writer Rashad Safar never bother to answer, but only because they’re after far weightier ones in Baydarov’s second narrative feature as the Doctor sends his men after Davud and it turns out Davud is chasing something himself that’s particularly elusive in these parts, coming across a series of women who could use a little compassion, much like he does. He seems unlikely to show it to them when an early scene shows him berating his bedridden mother (Maryam Naghiyeva), using the pretext of getting her pills as his cover for the murder he commits, but the angel of death can be seen as an angel of mercy by the women that he meets, motorbiking past a girl who calls herself Rabid (Kubra Shukrova) for being chained inside a farmhouse by her overprotective father, Ilaha (Narmin Hasanova), the wife of a serial abuser who escapes to the side of the highway, and an unnamed bride (Rana Asgarova) who runs away from an arranged marriage that promises only more misery ahead.

Each encounter culminates in a death, giving Davud quite the reputation amongst the criminals that follow him, but “In Between Dying” finda novel way to open up the liminal space between this world and whatever comes next by provocatively asking what kind of life is anyone on screen living when it’s one spent in constant fear and uncertainty. The film opens with a profound poem about finding the open doors in a closed-off world, revealed to be written by a six-year-old and while the content of the poem might apply to what follows, the acknowledgement of its young author cleverly creates a context for the film where the most uncomplicated answers hold the most wisdom.

This may take a little time to adjust to as the first 20 minutes of “In Between Dying” seem overly blunt, both the idioms of a valley of death and looking for love take on a literal meaning, and its characters ruminating ominisciently over gorgeously wrought landscapes threaten to come off as a bit pretentious, but it’s a means to an end that Baydarov makes quite worthwhile — and suspect he’ll iron out in the years ahead, reminding a bit of Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” where the magic of the world was revealed in the connections that people make with one another. As the bride tells Davud at one point, “Just once in your life, you want to tell someone about yourself,” when asked why she’s opening her guts to a stranger, and Baydarov makes it feels as if someone’s actually listening.

“In Between Dying” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It is now screening virtually in the Toronto Film Festival’s Industry Selects sidebar.