The Cinema of Tengiz Abulnadzeby Monish K Das January 28 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 13 mins, 15 secs
All of Abulnadze’s important films especially his much acclaimed The Georgia Trilogy exemplify the key features of Georgian cinema, writes Monish K. Das
Federico Fellini, reacting to the cinema of Georgia – a region in the Caucasus, which was once a republic in the erstwhile USSR and now an independent country - once said, “Georgian film is a completely unique phenomenon - vivid, philosophically inspiring, very wise, childlike. There is everything that can make me cry and I ought to say that it (my crying) is not an easy thing!”
One of the key filmmakers of Georgia – which boasts of such illustrious names like Eldar and Giorgi Shengelaia, Mikhail Kalatzov, Otar Iosseliani and Mikhail Kobakhidze - was Tengiz Abulnadze. All of Abulnadze’s important films especially his much acclaimed The Georgia Trilogy exemplify the key features of Georgian cinema – the non-adherence to the strict diktats of the Socialist Realism (the official aesthetic dogma of the Soviet state) in favour of a cinematic/aesthetic style that is individual, expressionistic and deeply rooted in the traditions, history and folklore of this small but culturally unique, rich and diverse nation and its people.
Born in 1924, Abulnadze studied theatre direction at the Shota Rustaveli Theatre Institute in Tbilisi, Georgia, and then film direction at the VGIK Film School in Moscow. At the film school, Abulnadze was exposed to an eclectic range of cinema and filmmakers. He was particularly fascinated by the visual aspects of Sergei Eisenstein and the surreal vision and stylistics of Luis Bunuel. But, the film which impressed him the most was Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves (1948) about which he later remarked, “When I saw this I had the feeling I'd been robbed. He had done everything I'd been wanting to do, in the sense of form and style.''
Graduating from VJIK in 1952, Abulnadze joined the Tbilisi branch of Goskino Studios (known as Georgia Film Studios) – the premier Soviet film production agency – as a director on payroll and made a couple of documentaries about life in Georgian villages. His first major success was a short film Magdana's Donkey (1955), which he co-directed with Rezo Chkheidze. Set in late 19th century rural Georgia, Magdana's Donkey, chronicles the life of widowed yoghurt-seller and her three children who find a donkey by chance. The film displays all the major characteristics of Italian neorealism – shooting on location, use of non-actors and abjuration of melodrama in favour of a more slice-of–life approach. Magdana's Donkey won the Best Fiction Film (Short) at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival and established his reputation as one of the young talents emerging from the USSR although his bosses at Goskino were not exactly pleased with the film for its stylistic departure from socialist realism both formally and in terms of content.
Magdana's Donkey (1955)
Abulnadze followed up the success of Magdana's Donkey with a documentary Dimitriy Arakishvili (1955), which is about the life and times of composer, musicologist and teacher who was the founder of modern Georgian school of music. Then came his two feature films - Someone Else's Children (1958) and Me, Grandma, Iliko and Ilarion (1962). Both were set in rural Georgia and display the influence of Italian neorealism in terms of content and cinematic style. However, Me, Grandma, Iliko and Ilarion also display a few departures from neo-realism.
The story about a poor grandmother, Olga who brings up her two orphaned grandchildren with the help of her two large-hearted neighbours, the film is full of typical rustic Georgian humour and references to folk traditions, songs and dances, which would become hallmarks of his later films. There is also another notable departure from basic tenets of neo-realism in the film. In films like the Bicycle Thieves and others, children, who are often one of the central figures, are sentimentalized and also are an integral part of the adult world and its issues. In Abulnadze’s film, the children remain children with their innocence and flights of fancy intact. The film was a big hit in the Soviet Union and cemented the reputation of Georgia Film Studios as the producers of light hearted comedies.
The commercial success of Me, Grandma, Iliko and Ilarion gave Abulnadze an opportunity and the heft to make a radical departure. His next film Vedreba/Molba aka The Plea (1967) – the first film of The Georgia Trilogy – is remarkable for junking all notions of cinematic realism in favour of poetic cinematic style and mise-en-scene that is heavily influenced by traditional aesthetics and forms of representation, which are completely non-mimetic. Set in medieval Georgia, the film is a meditation on Georgian history – the principal theme being the conflict between a Christian and Muslim tribe who are bitter enemies but have deep respect for each other’s prowess, social and cultural values. One of the most remarkable aspects of the film is that it has no dialogue in the conventional sense. All the spoken words in the film, which are often overlaid on the visuals, are taken from a medieval epic Georgian poem written by Vazha-Pshavela. The film is allusive, repetitive in its narrative structure and its primary concern seems to be reconciling the earthly conflict between the two tribes with the transcendental aspects of faith, culture and traditions.
The non-realistic aspect of the film is reinforced both by its remarkable cinematography and editing style. The rich, high-contrast B&W cinematography with complex camera movements has a two-dimensional quality, which seems to be inspired by the stylistics of medieval Russian (and Caucasian) icon paintings and folk art. The editing pattern eschews all norms of continuity editing and its inherent idea of arranging shots to maintain spatial and temporal continuity. Instead, the overall editing scheme of the film is based on the concept of shots being put together on the rhythm of the poetic narration often using what Sergei Eisenstein termed as ‘tonal montage’ – in which shots are joined keeping in mind themes, moods, lighting, shadows, directions, movements and shapes of the shots in order to evoke the emotive aspects of the characters and the story.
Vedreba/Molba aka The Plea (1967)
The debunking of cinematic realism of any kind and digging deep into Georgia’s history and national identity earned Abulnadze the wrath of Soviet film officialdom and the party apparatchiks who found it to be at odds with the reigning politico-aesthetic ideology of the Soviet state. The upshot - Abulnadze was unofficially banned from making films although he was ready with the follow-up films, which constitute The Georgia Trilogy.
After a few years in the wilderness, he was given permission to make another film provided it will be ‘apolitical’. A Necklace for My Beloved (1971) is based on a fairytale-like story written by the Georgian folklorist Ahmedkhan Abu Bakar. Set in the Sunni Muslim dominated Caucasian region of Dagestan, the film is a light hearted comedy telling the story of three young men who set out on a journey to get a gift for the beautiful belle, Serminaz, in order to win her hand. Bahadur Magomedov, the film’s protagonist narrates his life-story through a flashback – his birth on a dusty road, him falling in love with the blue-eyed Serminaz and the journey he has to undertake to win the heart and hand of his beloved.
The film has a quaint episodic fairy tale like structure, amusing and odd-ball characters and its cinematography captures the beauty of the Dagestani landscape with long takes. A Necklace for My Beloved presents Dagestan as a region almost untouched by modernity – the people still wear their colourful traditional costumes, maintain their pre-modern customs, rituals, handicrafts. The Soviet state apparatus is conspicuous by its absence. The only presence of the Soviet state appears in the very beginning of the film – an obese middle-aged commissar riding a noisy, smoke-emitting motorcycle gives Bahadur a stern warning not to write ‘rubbish’ - Bahadur’s gift for Serminaz being the screenplay of film named A Necklace for My Beloved!!! The film again abjures all obligations to realism and hence makes a strong political statement through its aesthetics and cinematic style. Mercifully for Abulnadze this departure and political non-conformism escaped the notice of the censors and the Party bosses.
A Necklace for My Beloved (1971)
The Wishing Tree (1976), the second film of The Georgia Trilogy again showcases Abuladze’s preoccupation with pre-industrial, pre-Soviet era Georgia. Based on more than twenty short stories by the poet, writer and literary critic Giorgi Leonidze, the film’s central narrative is focused on the ecstasy and agony of Marita, a young woman who is forced to marry against her wish and who in the second half of the film falls in love with Gedya. This unsanctioned love affair leads to conflict between their respective tribes leading to Marita’s ritual disgrace and sacrifice.
Spanning four seasons, the film is populated with a myriad range of characters who represent various aspects of Georgian life, culture and history. In Abulnadze’s own words, “The Wishing Tree is a film about the people lit up by a dream. Every character has its own ideal. One is worshipping the skies, another the earth, some idolize the body, others elevate the spirit. Some destroy the body, others the soul…” The characters, even though they are part of the 22 stories, blend with the narrative of the film purposefully each expressing a particular feature or aspect of Georgian people and its national identity.
The Wishing Tree (1976)
The Wishing Tree is a film with a sense of melancholia although it is replete with vibrant and at the same time sombre images, which explore the beauty of the landscape and the culture and social ethos of the nomadic Georgian tribes. The key image of the film is that of the wishing tree, which is also called the tree of desire; a custom where small scraps of coloured cloth, each cloth representating a wish/request to God are tied to branches of a tree. Hundreds of such trees dot the Georgian countryside and are emblematic of a certain kind of life that is remote, insular yet fecund, full of conflict and spirituality.
The wishing tree in the film becomes the icon of Georgia to be strengthened and its eternal spirit and individuality. The poetic imagery of the film is similar to that of Abuladze’s contemporary Sergei Parajanov. A major aspect of the film is its innovative sound design. Happiness and content is shown through quiet natural sounds of water, birds chirping. Sadness through silence and bells ringing. Marita has a theme with bells and synths playing quietly in the background, almost otherworldly and reflects her fellow villagers’ idea of her as a symbol of their pristine beauty and purity.
Abulnadze’s non-adherence to the aesthetic dogmas of Socialist Realism, however, was condoned by the authorities. The film won the Lenin Prize, the main prize at the All-Union Film Festival (the premier festival of films made in the USSR) and the David di Donatello Award presented by the Accademia del Cinema Italiano.
The success of The Wishing Tree however did not make it any easier for Abulnadze to make Repentance – the final film of The Georgia Trilogy. It was only around 1982-83 that he could begin work on the film and that too after receiving support from Eduard Shevardnadze who was the First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party from 1972-1985. Shevarnadze would become the Foreign Minister of the USSR during the regime of Mikhail Gorbachev and later the President of Georgia, after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Repentance was completed in 1984 but was immediately banned for its stringent criticism of the Soviet state and Stalinism in particular. It was only in 1987, the film was released at the behest of the noted filmmaker Elem Klimov, Shevarnadze and the personal approval of Mikhail Gorbachev himself.
Among the films, which comprise of The Georgia Trilogy, Repentance has the most conventional narrative structure. The film takes the form of a satire about the tyranny of Varlam Aravidze, the corrupt mayor of a small Georgian town and a man who happens to have Hitler's moustache, Mussolini's profile, Stalin's haircut and body type. Apparently about Stalinism, the film goes beyond being a mere critic of it and becomes, as Abulnadze himself said, “This film is deeper and wider than the problem of Stalin.'' It is a complex, coherent metaphor of the evil of totalitarianism and its aftermath in the context when the tyranny is not recognized but either celebrated or put under the carpet. Abuladze avoids a literal approach in favour of the absurd and the allegorical.
Stark Christian imagery appears throughout: the villain devouring a fish, a heavily moustachioed lackey of Varlam's family wolfing down church-shaped cakes. At other times surreal images – the legacy of Abulnadze’s enthrallment with Luis Bunuel since his days as a student in VJIK - dominate. A white grand piano stands in the middle of an overgrown garden where a man wearing only a shirt puts flowers under its lid. A blindfolded young woman is led off into the bushes by a white-gloved man in black. Is the heavy-set, smirking man with the small moustache perhaps the devil himself? Here is that wicked man destroying the lives of a beautiful young couple with a little girl. But the woman who is decorating pastries to look like small churches, why is she so sad? Almost as sad as the dark-haired young man who keeps shouting at his father. Both are angry. Evidently the man with the moustache had done them great harm.
The release of Repentance during the period of glasnost and perestroika matched perfectly with the spirit of the times. It was a huge hit – more than 4 million people saw it. The News Agency TASS reported, “People have stood and applauded the empty screen in many cities.” It’s numerous international awards included the FIPRESCI Prize, Grand Prize of the Jury and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. Avtandil Makharadze, who had the double role as the flamboyant Varlam and his guilt-ridden, weakling son and successor Abel, won the Hugo Award for the best actor at the 1987 Chicago International Film Festival. Critic and film historian David Thomson wrote, “Repentance is political cinema at its finest… Never before had a single film so contributed to a country’s debate about its own horrific past.”
The critical and commercial success of Repentance did not boost Abulnadze’s career as a filmmaker to any great extent. He was beset with health issues. The dwindling state sponsorship of cinema and arts in general in the post-Soviet era also acted as a hindrance. His attempt to make a screen adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novella Hadji Murat – which recounts the life and times of a rebel who led the Avars and the Chechens against Tsarist forces – based on a screenplay he co-wrote with Giorgi Shengelaia remained unfinished. He passed away in 1994.
Tengiz Abulnadze is one of the key figures of what the film academic Jerry White defined as ‘oppositional cinema’. With his stringent criticism of totalitarianism and its variants and a deep commitment to Georgia’s history, folklore and national identity that is expressed through his unique and personal cinematic vision and stylistics, Abulnadze ranks not only among the all-time greats of the Soviet era cinema but also among the very best in the context of the history of cinema itself.