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The Reason Borat Works Isn’t Actually Borat
Who had the Borat sequel on their list of possibilities for an October surprise?
By now you’ve likely heard about the film’s shocking Rudy Giuliani segment, one of those all-time great exposés that make it seem as if the floor and your jaw are magnetized.
The Trump toad agrees to be interviewed by an attractive, blonde foreign journalist. He giddily flirts with her, accompanies her into a hotel bedroom after the interview for a drink, lies on the bed, and starts to reach for his penis (one can only imagine what he had in mind) when star Sacha Baron Cohen bursts in to stop the escalating situation.
“Rudy, Trump would be disappoint, you are leaving hotel without golden shower!” Borat shouts after him as Giuliani retreats, his hand literally caught in his pants.
There’s been a bit of talk over whether critics who were given an early preview to Borat Subsequent Movie Film, the sequel coming 14 years after the original comedy, ruined things by spoiling the unbelievable scene. It’s true that there’s no accounting for the out-of-body experience of watching the Giuliani sequence unaware of the horror to come. But there’s an argument that the scene is news, not a spoiler, and needed to be reported on as soon as possible.
But here’s the real surprise: It’s not even the most shocking, or most searingly relevant, accomplishment of the film.
Borat Subsequent Movie Film introduces actress Maria Bakalova as Tutar, the 15-year-old daughter of Cohen’s notorious lead character. She’s the movie’s secret weapon (actually secret; the studio went so far as to call Bakalova by a fake name in early press notes in order to keep her identity hidden), and, in truth, the only reason why it works.
Borat Subsequent Movie Film could have been a tired retread of lazy gotcha moments; who needs a mustachioed buffoon to pull the curtain back on America’s intrinsic racism when these people are telling on themselves every day?
I was fully prepared to think there was no discernible value in making light of our country’s ugliest truths when, so long after that first film, these things are no longer hiding in plain sight but parading with pride. Exposing it has become its own political-comedy cottage industry, worth nothing more than the smug pat on the back the creators give themselves. Another Borat movie focused on that would be akin to screaming “mah wife!” in an echo chamber.
There’s a sweetness to Borat’s relationship to Tutar that grounds Subsequent Movie Film. But there’s an outrageous ugliness to just about every other man’s relationship to her that gives the Borat mission a new life—and all of us watching a horrifying view into the casual misogyny and abuse that thrives when men think they’re in a safe space. (And, oh, what a low bar there is for that. The safe space is everywhere.)
When Borat discovers that he has a 15-year-old daughter, Tutar has been living in a tiny shack, the oldest unmarried woman in Kazakhstan. She dreams of one day graduating to a more expansive cage for women who are married, and maybe one day even one similar to that enjoyed by Melania Trump, who she assumes is the happiest wife in the world.
She stows away on her father’s trip to America, eventually becoming his purpose: he will deliver her as a gift to an important American politician, absolving Kazakhstan of the disgrace he reaped while making the first Borat film.
Here are a series of things that happen while Tutar, a 15-year-old girl, is standing next to Borat:
He asks a Texas store owner what size cage is best to keep her in, and he happily shows them his stock.
She swallows a plastic figurine of a baby and goes to a clinic to “take” the baby out. It’s a setup and the miscommunication is the point. Yet it’s certainly something to watch the pastor who, in the midst of counseling her against getting what he thinks is an abortion, is told that it is Tutar’s father, Borat, who “put the baby inside her” and does nothing to protect her.
Later, when she “births” the baby in a men’s bathroom stall, none of the men who go in to use the urinal bother to investigate what’s happening.
At a debutante ball, Borat asks another teen girl’s father how much Tutar could get as a prostitute, and the man grins while swiftly answering, “$500.” He’s loud enough for his own, mortified daughter to hear.
When Borat brings her to a plastic surgeon to get breast implants explicitly to make her more desirable as an offering to older men, the staff happily schedules the procedure as long as he can pay the bill.
It’s not reading too much into Borat Subsequent Movie Film to take notice of how integral Tutar’s transformation is to the big Rudy Giuliani moment everyone is talking about. When we first meet Tutar, she is so feral she eats a live monkey for sustenance. But in her time in America becoming wise to the rights and freedoms she’s been denied and trained to not even want, she becomes less of a tool in Borat’s antics and more of the mastermind herself.
There’s a physical makeover that happens, to the point that she could be a double for Tomi Lahren by the time she meets up with Giuliani. But there’s also, finally, agency. She’s in control throughout the entire sting. In fact, it’s her idea.
The filmmakers behind Subsequent Movie Film clearly intended for Bakalova’s performance and Tutar’s arc to be this major revelation. The Bulgaria-born actress was originally credited as “Irina Nowak” as a red herring before the film’s release unveiled her to be Maria Bakalova. The 24-year-old actress has appeared in a handful of Bulgarian films, but has been unknown to American audiences until now. She’s sensational, essentially carrying the second half of the movie—and every nuance in the plot—on her shoulders.
Without her, the film would likely be a swing-and-a-miss. Because of her, it’s influencing international political discourse. Bakalova deserves the lion’s share of the credit, and hopefully will make her way to stuffy awards voters’ radars.
As Christopher Rosen notes in Vanity Fair, Cohen as Borat turns to Bakalova and says “you were amazing” in the final moments of the film. “It’s arguably the only time he breaks character.”