Directed by Tengiz Abuladze
A smartly-trimmed mustache lies nestled in his philtrum. Thin, frameless
glasses dig into the ridge of his nose. A black shirt and leather
suspenders stretch over his plump frame. His lips straddle a cavern from
which escape sweet lies, manic ramblings, and operatic arias. Stretched
into a smile, they betray the empty promises of a hollow man. In the
evening he will charm you. In the morning he will arrest you. And for
reasons apparent only to himself, you will disappear.
For years Varlam Aravidze served as the mayor of a small town in Soviet
Georgia. His death was marked by public mourning and a pompous funeral.
But the next morning his rigid corpse seemingly materializes in the
garden of his son Abel’s house. The body is quickly reburied. But again,
the next morning the body appears in Abel’s garden. The exasperated
police take the only option they can think of: arrest the dead body so
it can be held for an inquiry. This Kafka-esque farce continues for
several more days. The body is reburied and dug up again night after
night. Finally the grave is covered in a massive metal cage. But still,
the body returns.
One night the perpetrator is finally caught in the act. She is revealed to be a local pastry chief named Ketevan Barateli. She is swiftly brought to trial where she freely admits to exhuming Varlam’s grave but refuses to admit guilt. “As long as I live Varlam Aravidze will not rest in the ground,” she declares. And so she begins the flashback which will engross most of the rest of Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance, a brave and powerful film that seeks nothing less than the catharsis of an entire nation in the wake of decades of Stalinist control. Originally shot in 1984, the film was shelved for several years by Soviet authorities. Premiering at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival, the film was seen by an estimated 60 million Russians and was celebrated for being one of the true masterpieces of post-glasnost Soviet filmmaking.
The journey through Ketevan’s past as she witnesses the rise of the despotic Varlam is painful and heart-breaking. At first Varlam, played by esteemed Georgian actor Avtandil Maxaradze, appears as little more than an oafish buffoon. His inauguration plays like a scene from a Charlie Chaplin film: as his speech is swallowed up by a booming brass band he is soaked by a burst water main. He receives pleas from Ketevan’s artist father Sandro to save a historic church with apparent compassion and sympathy. One night he arrives at Ketevan’s house with two assistants - who are dressed like they just came from a reception given by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - bearing gifts of flowers and caged birds. A swish of Varlam’s cloak materializes a playmate for Ketevan out of the aether in the form of a young Abel. Varlam and his assistants belt out jaunty opera tunes before jumping out of the window onto horses which whisk them away into the night.
That night monstrous dreams plague Sandro and his wife; dreams of dark corridors, fields of mud, and above all the smiling figure of Varlam being speed through the Georgian countryside in a blue automobile. In the morning Sandro is suddenly arrested by soldiers clothed in medieval metal armor. As Sandro is removed, one soldier clumsily plays the piano while another spirits away the paintings on his walls. The same paintings, one should mention, that Varlam was so enthusiastic about praising the night before.
Soon much of the entire town vanishes. The once charming Varlam has morphed into a gibbering madman, spewing out nonsensical rhetoric during speeches like “Four out of every three people are our enemies!” Without warning, Sandro’s church is demolished in the night. And finally, the men in metal armor come for Ketevan’s mother.
Certainly Varlam was a composite of numerous 20th century dictators, what with his Hitler mustache and Mussolini build. But it is his similarities with Joseph Stalin, Georgia’s home-grown tyrant, that warrant the most attention. After all, for all of its fame as a Soviet film, Repentance is first and foremost a Georgian work of cinema. The film is steeped in metaphors for the rise and rule of Stalin. Much like Varlam, Stalin was well-known for his chameleonic abilities to change his personality depending on the situation. As Julie Christensen writes, “Another central link between Varlam and Stalin, as the Georgians understand him, is the changing face of the evil dictator: concerned patriot, enlightened ruler, scheming maniac, and sadistic pervert. Stalin was well-known for his ability to don masks and change his identity, and [Maxaradze’s performance] centers around that motif.”
If we accept the interpretation that Varlam was a Stalin stand-in, then the film takes on a greater, richer meaning than it would if it was a simple treatise on despotism and man’s capacity for cruelty. An essential element of Georgian culture is their treatment and veneration of the dead. Continuing her astute analysis of Georgian society in Repentance, Christensen elaborates: “The past and its remains are holy...[Ketevan], a Georgian woman, denies Varlam proper treatment of a dead hero and violates his grave.” The third part of Repentance deals with Abel and his son Tornike coming to terms with Ketevan’s revelations about their patriarch. Unable to cope with the guilt, Tornike commits suicide and Abel personally steals Varlam’s body and unceremoniously throws it off the side of a cliff. These scenes involving the confrontation of a dictator’s true legacy and the decanonization of his status as a cultural hero provided catharsis for Georgian audiences in a manner other Soviet countries could not appreciate as fully.
Of course, to view Repentance as a mere metaphor would be to rob it of its simple visceral pleasures. The film is full of heart-breaking images such as Ketevan and her mother searching for Sandro’s name among messages scrawled into logs by prisoners upstream. Abuladze delights in warping the boundaries between different times, spaces, and cultures. The soundtrack will sway between austere classical music and blaring pop. In one scene a blindfolded Lady Justice stands in a prison courtyard next to a political insider merrily playing a white piano. In another Sandro and his wife lay buried up to their chins in dirty muck in the countryside. Elsewhere Varlam’s ghostly spectre peels the skin from a fish in a dark church while Abel begs for Absolution.
While the rest of the world’s socially-conscious cinema seems to be trapped by the limitations of stark realism, Abuladze dares something more. In Repentance, the sword of surrealism is wielded in the name of social commentary and Georgian justice.