February 8, 2013

repentanceAs glasnost settles in, the various kinds of Soviet openness will include a freeing-up of the national cinema, which has been a landscape of clumsy epics and squelched talents since the glory days of Russian filmmaking in the 1920s.

At least, a freeing-up is promised. We’ll see.

Anyway, the Gorbachev era has already brought some interesting titles into the open; movies that had been made, but were officially languishing on the shelf, for whatever reasons. Repentance (completed in 1984) is the latest find, and the one that has had the most publicity.

A good deal of the publicity likely comes from the allegorical nature of the movie, which takes a harsh view of Soviet history, albeit in a disguised way.

As the film opens, a famous man, Varlam Aravidze, has died. But when he is buried, his body keeps popping back up in the front yard of his middle-aged son. When the grave-robber is caught, it turns out to be a woman, who vows she will never allow Varlam’s body to rest in peace. At her trial, she tells her story.

As a child, she witnessed Varlam’s brutal reign over the town where she and her parents lived. Varlam was a pompous psychopath, a mayor who instituted official forms of terror and arranged the death of the girl’s father, an artist.

As delivered in the grand performance of Avtandil Makharadze, Varlam is a stupefying tyrant; with his tiny Hitler mustache and his well-fed form, he can be a comic figure at times, bursting into opera and making speeches declaring that “four out of every three persons are enemies.” But the actor never loses the terrible cruelty of the man, or the petty meanness.

The film’s director, Tengiz Abuladze, has said that Repentance is not merely an allegory of the Stalinist era, although that is surely the crucial point of comparison. That’s the way Russian audiences have responded to it; the movie has been an enormous hit in the Soviet Union.

Noting the film’s importance, it would be splendid to report that it’s a masterpiece, but I don’t think it is. Repentance has the lumbering nature of many Soviet movies, which tend to take 10 minutes to do what an American director can toss off with a reaction shot. But Makharadze’s strange performance, and Abuladze’s formal use of recurring motifs—flowers, churches—goes a long way toward making Repentance an intriguing experience, even if it may always mean more to Russian audiences than to others.

First published in the Herald, April 24, 1988

Abuladze was a Georgian filmmaker with a career dating back to 1953; the leading man played Stalin, his fellow Georgian, in the 2005 Daniel Craig picture Archangel. This movie sounds like it would look pretty interesting from 30 years’ distance.