CRITIC'S NOTES : Abuladze's 'Repentance': Georgia on His Mind

The richly beautiful and complex film "Repentance," an allegory from the southern Soviet republic of Georgia about the need to keep the memory of tyrants unburied and acknowledged, could stand a few footnotes to make it slightly more accessible to American audiences. (A little judicious pruning of its 2 1/2 hours might not hurt for general, non-art-film American audiences, but given the choice of a film in the form the director intended or a film cut at the whim of a distributor, there is absolutely no choice.)

First of all, the soul of "Repentance" is not "Russian," it is most defiantly Georgian, like its director, Tenghiz Abuladze. The culture of that republic, which has slightly more than 5 million inhabitants, is much older than that of Russia; neither Slavic nor Indo-European, it was founded in the 4th Century as an independent Christian kingdom. It was from among the Georgian rocks that the Prometheus legend sprang; this countryside was the homeland of Medea.

The earthy Georgians combine a humor and passion for life that we think of as Mediterranean with a history of blood feuds and vendettas that sound almost Sicilian. Although Georgian films are usually known for their particular humor and for colorfully eccentric characters, some of Abuladze's earlier films--particularly his stunning "Molba," and more about that in a while--have that same sense of character molded by geography that you feel with the Sicilians of "Padre Padrone" by the Taviani brothers. The Sicilian mountains are lower and covered by twisted scrubby bushes; the high Georgian mountains look like shale, gray-black and desolate, but the hardscrabble life, bound by harsh codes of justice, is the same for both.

(Some of the Soviet emigres interviewed in Calendar Dec. 4 after seeing "Repentance" suggested that the film's strongly Georgian flavor might have the effect of distancing the average Russian who sees the film from a feeling of direct responsibility for Stalin-era atrocities. "Repentance" was made using the Georgian language, with only a few Russian phrases in its whole length. The fact that Stalin was a Georgian who spoke Russian with a pronounced Georgian accent is probably better known to audiences in the U.S.S.R. than to American ones.)

But most importantly, "Repentance" is the third film in an intentional trio that began with the great 1968 "Molba" (translated variously as "Entreaty," "The Prayer" or "The Supplication") and followed by "The Tree of Miracles" (sometimes called "The Wishing Tree") in 1977. Last fall's Telluride Film Festival, in addition to producing Abuladze himself, provided the chance to see his two earlier films--as well as a lucid set of introductory notes by Tom Luddy, and from those are these quotes from the director on his work:

"There are several common themes in the trilogy, the most important one being what I call 'the guilt of the innocent'--everybody who, whether innocently or for good reason, breaks into somebody else's life is actually committing a crime. In 'Molba' it is thrown through the fight between Muslims and Christians; in 'The Tree of Miracles' the victim is a young girl."

Luddy's notes also suggest that Abuladze, more than any of his numerous film maker-countrymen (which include Sergei Paradjanov, Eldar Shengelaya and a half-dozen more major talents), "reflects a profound historical sense of violence and human cruelty which is particularly developed in a nation that has stood at the crossroads of East and West, Christianity and Islam for centuries: a nation that has witnessed innumerable invasions and the most dreadful violence committed in the name of religion or clan."

All these threads are visible in the fabric of the trilogy, and of all three, the most starkly compelling and all-of-a-piece is "Molba." But "Molba," for all its power and poetry, was not the ticking political bomb that "Repentance" is, with villains who are immediately recognizable as figures from a dark part of recent Soviet history. It's unlikely that masses of Americans will ever see the two important precursors to "Repentance," but there may be a great deal of fascination in this country over the overtness of Abuladze's references; such as the physical resemblance of his smarmy, mega-villain Varlam--played by Avtandil Makharadze--to Stalin/Hitler/Mussolini/Beria.

What American audiences may not be prepared for are the film's succinct references to religion and to the pressures of present-day science. The central victim of the piece is a handsome young, chestnut-bearded artist, Sandor Barateli and his equally beautiful wife, Nina (variously called Nino in some translations). Early in Varlam's ascent to power, there is a sequence in which Sandor and Nina wander dazedly through the church in their small city whose architecture and decorative paintings make it a great early Christian relic.

Weirdly, the church is filled to its domed ceiling with vast humming electrical power units, gleaming colored minarets that look like dangerous, overgrown chess pieces. When Sandor and a distinguished elderly man and woman, two of the city's most powerful figures, come to Varlam to protest that this cultural monument is being rattled to pieces, Varlam soothes them, saying that the experiments are being conducted "on minimal levels." It's an argument that might strike a familiar chord with protesters of atomic energy sites.

Abuladze packs a great deal in these few scenes: culture vs. the nyet-kulturny (no-culture); quotes from one of the last speeches of Albert Einstein on the responsibility of the scientist, and a terrifying quick sketch of Varlam, turning almost rabid on a second's notice.

Almost instantly, the protesting old couple is arrested, then, when Varlam can still be pressured, released. Sandor is, of course, the next victim--and his resemblance to a suffering Christ-like figure is underlined by Abuladze. His wife comes later, leaving only their beautiful young daughter, Keti, to become the instrument of revenge upon the clan Varlam when she has reached her early 40s.

There is a horrifying portrait of Varlam's superior who is also Sandor's teacher and mentor, a fierce, fine man, arrested and coerced until he is confessing to lunacy--to being part of a group attempting to tunnel from London to Bombay with 2,000 accomplices. But in addition to individuals, the church (for which we can read the Church as an institution) is also brought down in the course of "Repentance," blown up one night in one of those ominous experiments.

In the movie's close, an old woman, wandering through the village, asks the adult Keti, "Does this road lead to the church?" Keti says, sadly and firmly: "This is Varlam Street. It will not take you to a church."

As we learn when we see all parts of his trilogy, Abuladze--in common with most of the world's great film makers--takes a universal, not a national view, of the evils of repression. It's easy to suspect that he means not only "church" but religious freedom itself. In the light of the rallies and protest on behalf of Soviet Jews only last weekend, "Repentance," with all its mystifications, has an even greater meaning for American audiences.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World