Harmony Lessons has the feeling of being hand-crafted shot-by-shot, scene-by-scene, like the Kazak rug across which young Aslan slides his finger, tracing its repeating forms to its center. Objects, spaces, gestures, symbols, are all woven into the film’s fabric, creating complex motifs which repeat and vary, modifying the final textile with each iteration.
Every symbol in the weave is simple: knife = slaughter, lamb = innocence, glass = humiliation, electricity = death. Most shots are as simple as the symbols – brief and static, it is their minimalism which allows them to be merged into a more complex pattern.
Aslan, selected for ostracization by his school’s alpha male Bolat, is tricked into drinking a glass of water into which his entire class has dipped their testicles. His body social becomes contaminated through the perceived contamination of the body material, which Aslan knows as his truth, as do his classmates. His ostracization is mythical, one which stems from his tragic status as orphan and butcher’s grandson, and which is finalized by this adolescent rite of impurification.
Harmony Lessons opens with Aslan preparing the slaughter and disembowelment of the lamb preparing us in this single violent act for the via cruces that he must pass through. This image of lamb for the slaughter is the very heart of the rug’s pattern, around which each element will be spun. Each injustice that befalls Aslan, each passion, each solitude, only aggrandizes our empathy for him. Aslan is the innocent lamb who must expiate not just the sins of his classmates, but ours as well, and when woe befalls him we are secretly content that we are freed from pain, although we suffer too.
Once this initial and extreme act of butchery has been placed in the film’s center, subsequent violent dramas (his beating, his friend Mirsain’s beating, his murder of Mirsain) can be delicately elided. The final work requires only one core, and the other elements are emplaced to serve this central figure’s beauty.
As the violence passes from subject to form, each visual becomes endowed with the weight by joining the pattern. With great care, the film entraps ambiance in an icy landscape, emotion in a waver of the eye, tension in the materiality of a knife, measuring out each element justly before proceeding to the next.
The myth of natural power related through Harmony Lessons’ symbolic matrix begins humbly in the minor universe of a high school, echoes to expand in the adult world, reverberating again into the grander story of man and beast, of nature and perhaps even god. Through the simplicity and evidence of its elementary imagery, Harmony Lessons traces an elaborate pattern of sacrifice and ultimately of liberation too.
Uroki garmonii (Harmony Lessons)
Kazakhstan / Germany / France 2013, 115 min
Director: Emir Baigazin
Cast: Timur Aidarbekov, Aslan Anarbayev, Mukhtar Anadassov, Anelya Adilbekova, Beibitzhan Muslimov