Friday, August 16, 2013

Repentance (1984)

It all begins one fateful day when the last mayor of a town in Georgia, Varlam Aravidze (Avtandil Makharadze) passes away. Known to be a great man, people sing paeans at his funeral. Trouble begins when the corpse of Varlam comes back from the grave and on to the backyard of the Aravidze household, much to the shock of his son Abel (Avtandil Makharadze, again!), daughter-in-law Guliko (Iya Ninidze) and grandson Tornike (Merab Ninidze). After an initial panic attack full of hysteria and hoopla, and an attraction of attention by the neighbours, the family reburies Varlam's corpse, but it reappears the next morning! 

Sounds weird? Nothing compared to what happens next! In a hilariously absurd move, the police arrest the corpse! It may all seem bizarre even in a far-fetched Bunuel-esque universe, but all these proceedings, in fact, hint at what's to come in the narrative as it takes a sharp turn soon after! The mystery of the reappearing corpse is solved as the film moves into the next segment: the backstory of the mayor, the leader, the public figure, Varlam Aravidze through the eyes of Ketevan Barateli (Zeinab Botsvadze).

A lot is happening in Tengiz Abuladze's brilliant and shockingly less seen "Repentance" (1984). Banned upon its initial release in the Soviet Union, it got its premiere only at the Cannes Festival in 1987. It certainly doesn't come as a surprise, considering the film's biting content! Abuladze plays around with a whole gamut of ideas in his masterwork that begins as a dark, absurdist comedy, turns into a scathing political allegory infused with surrealism, and then culminates into a strong morality play. While the aforementioned plot description seems to be a rather oddball comic ghost story, it soon shifts shape and turns into a fantastical history lesson, a harrowing tale of a reign of terror unleashed on innocent beings by the masked devil, Varlam Aravidze

Aravidze is a cleverly written character, an epitome of a totalitarian fascist personality, with an attire that resembles Benito Musolini's, a moustache that resembles Adolf Hitler's and a hairstyle and a government policy that resembles that of Joseph Stalin! He has pompous mannerisms, breaks into opera-like songs, does comedy routines with a smirk on his cherubic face, that soon disappears into a menacing look of a merciless dictator! This Stalin-esque leader's "secret police" move around in medieval knight costumes and ride on horses!

Abuladze, in his hellish, phantasmagorical fascist universe of which Varlam Aravidze is the ruler, paints a grim picture of what it must've been like for the victims of the Great Purge of the 30s in which mass arrests were made on baseless grounds. In some of film's most wonderfully written sequences, blatant jabs are taken at Stalinism. In Varlam's regime, any forward thinker or rebellious artist, or a morally steadfast or god-fearing individual who hints at opposing his veiled communist agenda is considered an "enemy of the nation" and subjected to arrest and exile! A challenge is taken up to "find a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat", like the Confucius quote goes! False confessions of being spies are forced out of such individuals. One such artist is an important character, Sandro Barateli (Edisher Giorgobiani). He is a Jesus-like personality who, along with his teacher Mikhail (Kakhi Kavsadze) is subjected to torment for making people voice their opinions against certain directives of Varlam, particularly those concerning the desecration of a church for industrial and scientific purposes. Quite bold in its narrative approach and characterization, the right hand man of Varlam turns out to be an illiterate man!

In a powerful scene that would make Andrei Tarkovsky proud, amidst a string score, with no dialog, women and children of the men sent off on exile search for carvings on logs sent back on goods trains, presumably made by their husbands/fathers, to reassure their families of their well-being. It is the most heart-rending sequence in which a woman finds her husband's carving and kisses and caresses the log and speaks to it! Most others go home empty-handed as they look on at the logs being converted to sawdust and their hopes shattered and turned to dust!

The lighting and camerawork is distinctly different in this segment as compared to the film's light-hearted first few minutes. Sepia tone and dark lighting is employed along with a dexterous use of music in a rather ironic fashion. For example, a scene which could be of an execution of an artist, plays against Beethoven's "Ode to Joy"!

The third part of the story goes into darker territory as it focuses on Aravidze's legacy; his progeny, his son, Abel and his family who may have to bear the brunt of their father's sins! It slightly moves into family melodrama territory but never one that is bloated or exaggerated. The color tone shows a distinct change. It is bleaker in this last act with its darker sepia tones. The rifts show. Torn between virtue and sin, conscience and pride, Abel finds himself caught in a crossfire, unable to decide what direction to sway towards! Juggling between his own guilt but bound by the family name and honour, he also struggles to pacify his only son, Tornike who hates his father for supporting his grandfather! In a superb sequence in which Abel confesses to a mysterious man in the dark, eating raw fish, he talks of his existential dilemma, as he puts it: "I am preaching atheism while wearing a cross"!

The magnificent Avtandil Makharadze doubles up as the father-son duo. It is a tour de force for the fine actor, as he creates a wonderfully hateful dictator in Varlam and takes the other extreme as the son, having to bear the cross of his father's sins, and struggling with his own moral split. Avtandil effortlessly slips into each character in a way that he becomes virtually unrecognizable in the other role! 

Tengiz Abuladze raises several other questions in his glorious film. Can the past be buried, especially if it's a dark one? The literal appearance of Aravidze's corpse serves as a metaphor for a family's dark past that cannot be erased. Sure enough, it comes back to haunt Aravidze's family and stays with them. Furthermore, does the absence of guilt nullify what we call sin? After all, the aforementioned mysterious man says, "Man has been split in two ever since he tasted the forbidden fruit and knows what's right and what's wrong. It's not a great sin". Does it absolve someone's sin or does it mean that man is a born sinner and that we all need repentance for our sins? And finally, does the onus of repentance for one man's sins lie upon others, particularly his family members, who feel the guilt? This film could very well be Abuladze's and the Soviet Union's repentance for the atrocities of Stalinism! And therefore it is not surprising that the old lady questions in the end. "Why have a road that doesn't lead to a church?"

Score: 10/10

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