Baikonur Review
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Deserved or not, Eastern European films—or at least those that do the festival circuit—have a reputation for being dour affairs. It’s a part of the world that had a pretty rough go of it through most the cinema’s existence, so it’s understandable. Everyone needs to lighten up once in awhile, though, and playing against expectation makes a charming romantic comedy like Baikonur a treat.

Out on the Kazakh steppes surrounding the Baikonur rocket launch center, small villages recover and sell falling debris under the idea that “what falls from the sky is a gift from God.” A young man, nicknamed “Gagarin” (Alexander Asochakov) after the first man in space, gives his village a leg up by tracking radio signals on his ham radio. Out on his own one night, he stumbles upon a lost reentry capsule holding the beautiful and amnesiac French space tourist Julie (Marie de Villepin). Immediately love-stricken, he stumbles into suggesting that she’s his wife. Unfortunately for Gagarin, though, amnesia in movies doesn’t last forever.

The best parts of Baikonur unfold with a light touch, charming and enjoyable while avoiding slipping too far into cheesiness. Gagarin is a good kid, pretty bright overall but also remarkably naïve. Julie is a bit harder to get a handle on, but she’s convincing as the object of Gagarin’s overwhelming affections. What isn’t convincing is that he would never have considered Nazira (Sitora Farmonova), the village girl with whom he grew up. Even under the layers of dirt, she’s just stunning.

Director Veit Helmer surrounds this love triangle with a variety of interesting settings and people. The vast steppes look gorgeous rather than desolate, and they contrast nicely with the giant rockets and other Soviet-era technological leftovers. It effectively conveys the idea that these people are kind of stuck between eras, adapting a pre-industrial lifestyle to the fringes of the advanced technological world.

Even better, the mostly elderly inhabitants of Gagarin’s tiny village are a lot fun, supplying the film with some much-needed humor. They squabble and insult each other in the friendly ways that people who spend far too much time together often do, but they always keep an eye toward preserving their village against the outside world—whether that means rival scavengers or large chunks of metal dropping out of orbit.

Between this warm community and the feisty Nazira, it’s surprising that Gagarin would be so dead-set on pursuing Julie and the space program, but Asochakov sells the journey he takes from starry-eyed dreamer to more realistic and forward-thinking young man. It isn’t easy, but he takes to it with the same good-natured whimsy that characterizes the film.

I can’t say that all or even most Eastern European films are easy to watch, but Baikonur is a uniquely pleasant surprise. It can hold its own stacked up against most Western romantic comedies, and it even manages to work in a brief peek into a culture that most of us aren’t familiar with. It’s fun, charming, and exactly the kind of movie it needs to be, and it goes a long way toward dispelling an unfortunate stereotype.

Ed. Note: Baikonur is currently playing at film festivals (like the Cleveland International Film Festival). For more information, visit

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