Friends and Family

Nick Pinkerton on “Discovering Georgian Cinema” at MoMA and the Berkeley PFA

Eldar Shengelaia, Blue Mountains, or Unbelievable Story, 1984, 35 mm, color, sound, 97 minutes.

I’M OPPOSED ON GENERAL PRINCIPLE to the assumption of audience ignorance—“Ten Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” and so on—but in the case of “Discovering Georgian Cinema,” an exception can be made. The two-part program, arranged by Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive in collaboration with New York’s Museum of Modern Art and playing more or less simultaneously at both institutions, offers a look at work that is scarcely available beyond the Black Sea, and on 35-mm exhibition prints, to boot.

Sergei Parajanov, perhaps the most internationally renowned Georgian-born filmmaker on the basis of works like Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and The Color of Pomegranates (1968), doesn’t even show up in the program’s first part, subtitled “A Family Affair.” (A DCP restoration of Pomegranates, however, plays the Walter Reade Theater on October 2, as part of the Fifty-Second New York Film Festival.) That “Family Affair” is a reference to the close-knit nature of Georgian cinema—historically centered around the Gruzia Film Studios—a film culture whose interconnections are in many cases blood ties. (In the booklet published in conjunction with the series, a table labeled “Family Connections in Georgian Cinema” illustrates this fact.)

To take one prominent example: The series’ opening night screening is the 1928 silent Eliso by Nikoloz Shengelaia, whose sons, Eldar and Giorgi, would become accomplished directors in their own right. Noutsa Gogoberidze, matriarch of a line of filmmakers, also founded the family business in the silent period. Noutsa’s daughter, Lana Gogoberidze—represented here by her 1979 Several Interviews on Personal Matters and 1984 The Day Is Longer than the Night—grew up never having seen her mother’s films, which were banned after she was sentenced to twelve years in prison and exile as “family of an enemy of the people.” (Noutsa’s husband, Levan Gogoberidze, was a former first secretary of the Georgian communist party, killed as part of the Great Purge.) MoMA will play Noutsa’s recently rediscovered 1930 Buba, a short documentary made in collaboration with painter David Kakabadze about rugged life in the Racha highlands of the country’s north, a gorgeous film with a sacrosanct feeling for the power of the elements, thrumming with the energy of cloud formations coursing over the Caucasus, rushing mountain streams, and electric montage. (Buba shares a bill with Felicità, a 2009 short by Noutsa’s granddaughter, Salomé Alexi.)

Of the other Georgian silents, a word should be said for Kote Mikaberidze’s madcap debut feature My Grandmother (1929), which plays in the program’s second half, “Beyond the Blue Mountains.” Aleqsandre Takaishvili, a mixture of Harold Lloyd and Barton Fink, plays the overseer of an inefficient state office who must scramble to right his career after he’s “fired for bureaucratic excess.” The manager’s dismissal is visualized in the terms of an editorial cartoon—he is literally impaled by a gigantic ink pen thrown by a righteously indignant member of the youth communist league. Returning home in despair, he hangs himself from a chandelier, a fact which escapes the notice of his spoiled wife and daughter when they barrel through the door laden with new consumer goods and jitterbug wildly around the apartment. This should give some idea of the film’s anything-goes eccentricity—and Mikaberidze seems determined to leave no effect unused, toying with stop-motion animation, distorting lenses, looming angles, freeze-frames, and whatever else he can get his hands on.

Takaishvili can also be seen as a magistrate in Magdana’s Donkey, the 1955 feature debut of Tengiz Abuladze and Rezo Chkeidze, then fresh from the Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. The film, which took the Grand Prix at Cannes, is apparently regarded as the forerunner of the Georgian New Wave to come, but I must confess that beyond some stirring plein air photography, I found very little in this tale of a peasant family resuscitating a left-for-dead donkey beyond the most wearisome clichés of socialist realism—the shamelessly cute-as-a-button orphans, the piggish boss barking orders with a mouthful of bread bought from the sweat of others’ labor, the stoically suffering mother in beatific close-ups staring off toward the workers’ paradise to come.

Tengiz Abuladze, Repentance, 1984/87, 35 mm, color, sound, 153 minutes.

Unpromising beginnings aside, Georgia would have its New Wave, producing several films that found renown in the larger world. Abuladze, who balanced Christian mysticism with a well-developed sense of the absurd, became a figure of unparalleled importance, represented here by his decades-spanning trilogy of The Plea (1967), The Wishing Tree (1977), and Repentance (1984/87)—the last depicting the despotic mayoral reign of a petty potentate who has Hitler’s mustache but in many other respects recalls that infamous son of Tiflis, Joe Stalin. Parajanov, a more cosmopolitan figure, wouldn’t take on a specifically Georgian subject until his 1984 The Legend of Suram Fortress, completed after a decade of persecution by the Soviet authorities, while Giorgi Shengelaia may have found the most quintessentially Georgian subject of all in his Pirosmani (1969). An austere, highly individual biopic that imagines the life of self-taught painter Niko Pirosmani (1862–1918), the film comprises a series of tableaux whose head-on perspective and figural grouping imitates compositions favored by the painter himself. It’s a work suffused with a pervasive melancholy—Avtandil Varazi’s stubbornly uncompromised Pirosmani gradually grays and stoops while everyone else around him seems to stay the same age. And no End of History nostrums here—there’s nothing to imply that a Pirosmani living twenty years later would’ve fared much better.

Eldar Shengelaia’s 1968 An Unusual Exhibition, about an aspirant sculptor who turns to carving tombstone monuments, is regarded as a sort of companion film to his younger brother’s work. I can’t comment on the connection, not having seen the film at present, though I found much to admire in Eldar’s 1984 Blue Mountains. Despite the film’s pastoral title, its action is confined almost entirely to the dusty corridors of an unsturdy publishing house in Tbilisi. A writer bearing manuscripts traverses these halls attempting to harangue the committee members with the authority to move his work’s publication forward into reading it. Seasons change, but their self-absorbed indifference scarcely does—here we are not far from the vision of bureaucratic lassitude seen in My Grandmother, where functionaries pass time by dropping globs of spit on cockroaches or buffeting a secretary with love letters folded into paper planes. In Blue Mountains, however, there is no comeuppance for the toadies or salvation by way of the young communists. While the executives carry on with their interminable meetings, the whole institution finally comes apart at the seams around them, as the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic was about to do.

Films like Repentance and Blue Mountains anticipate the end of one era, though “Discovering Georgian Cinema” continues to track the national cinema’s tradition of dissidence past the establishment of an independent Georgian state in 1991. There is no telling if Mikheil Saakashvili—the ex-president who presided over the 2008 Russo-Georgian War and was revealed in a recent New York Times piece to be plotting his comeback from Williamsburg, Brooklyn—will make an appearance at MoMA, but director Eldar Shengelaia, who served on the Parliament of Georgia from 1990 to 2004, will be in New York to present screenings of Eliso, Pirosmani, and Blue Mountains. His comments on the State of the Nation are to be greatly anticipated.

“Discovering Georgian Cinema” runs September 23–December 21 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and September 26, 2014–April 19, 2015 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California.