Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Discovering Georgian Cinema which runs until April 19th. For more information on this TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Varlam Aravidze (Avtandil Makharadze), the former mayor of a small town in Soviet Georgia, has died. His passing is met with tears and solemn songs in praise of the dead. The day after his burial, however, Varlam returns, still dead, but propped up in the garden of his son Abel (also played by Makharadze). After causing a bit of a stir, Varlam’s dusty, stiff body is reburied that evening, but reappears the next morning. The poor guy just won’t stay buried, and eventually the police take an interest in the situation, arresting the corpse and taking him down to the station; protocol must be followed, after all.
Mixing surrealism with broad humor and poignant scenes, Repentance would become one of the most visible examples of the Soviet Union relaxing their censorship policies during perestroika and glasnost.
Thus begins the opening act of Repentance, Tengiz Abuladze’s blistering anti-Stalinist satire. Mixing surrealism with broad humor and poignant scenes, Repentance would become one of the most visible examples of the Soviet Union relaxing their censorship policies during perestroika and glasnost. Completed in 1984, Repentance had initially been banned by the Soviet Union, and did not see release until its premiere at Cannes in 1987. In 1988, it was finally shown in Soviet theaters and in large markets around the world, earning positive reviews and comparisons to the works of Andrei Tarkovsky and Luis Buñuel.
At the center of Repentance is the esteemed Varlam. Physically, he is an amalgam of some of the most infamous dictators of recent history, sporting Hitler’s moustache, Stalin’s hair and Mussolini’s fashion sense. Jolly, rosy-cheeked and charismatic, Varlam is educated and kind, and even those who fear him love him. But he was responsible for a series of atrocities against his people, and it’s these atrocities that have lead him now, decades later, to become a mouldering symbol of a past that Ketevan Barateli (Zeinab Botsvadze) doesn’t want anyone to forget. Ketevan has been arrested for desecrating his corpse, and as we see in flashback during the trial, Varlam was responsible for the persecution of her parents; now, every night, she digs the man up and leans him against a tree in Abel’s yard. As she stands trial, she promises repeatedly that she will never let Varlam rest, not while she is alive.
These absurd moments, which range from implausible to completely insane, give the viewer the very real sensation of dealing with someone who has lost their grip on reality.
What had started as an almost charming political satire, complete with broad characters and slapstick situations, becomes a melancholy tale during the flashback to Varlam’s reign. There are scenes of great beauty in Abuladze’s film, tragic moments set amongst lovely gardens and within large, Gothic homes. Many images lightly touch on the surreal; nightmares are indistinguishable from the absurdities of the very real political climate.
These absurd moments, which range from implausible to completely insane, give the viewer the very real sensation of dealing with someone who has lost their grip on reality. Everything we see in Repentance is plausible, in that it could happen — the laws of time and space are never broken — but are so outlandish that one can’t trust reality. Varlam’s police force are knights in full plate mail, for instance, and large-scale science experiments reminiscent of American sci-fi flicks of the 1950s are being conducted inside the town’s church.
The citizens don’t understand, and Varlam doesn’t understand why they don’t understand. He is just as difficult to navigate as the world he has created; his lies, whims and inappropriate emotions spill out of his every pore. To Abuladze, fascism is much like being caught in a terrible relationship with someone determined to gaslight you at every turn. Varlam’s protestations that he is only upholding the will of the majority is false, of course; we know that from history, and we know that in the film, too. But when an opponent retorts that the majority doesn’t matter because “one man of reason outweighs a thousand idiots,” it isn’t just a slap in Varlam’s face — he is the “idiot” and he knows it — but an indictment of any political system that employs majority rule.
In a film full of commanding performances, Avtandil Makharadze in the dual role of Vadim and his son Abel is revelatory. It’s no overstatement to say that Makharadze turns in one of the finest performances of any actor, yet it’s a performance that is often overlooked. Makharadze’s every expression, every movement embodies a thousand impossible philosophical contradictions. Emotions flit effortlessly across his face as his Varlam takes political opposition as personal rejection, and practically begs his terrorized people for their love. It’s genius, of course, to make Varlam sympathetic and weak and compelling. We’re almost fond of this goofy fellow, which makes us complicit in his acquisition of power, and later, in the crimes he commits against his own people.
Abuladze shows a tremendous confidence in his craft in Repentance, a film that never once flinches away from its own strangeness. There is no hesitation before indulging in long, lingering scenes, outrageous metaphors or impossible silence; scenes of unforgiving emotional beauty are mixed in with lowbrow slapstick. Repentance is a thoroughly modern film, though reminiscent of the works of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, only with sharper edges and Abuladze’s unique visual aesthetic. Inventive, poignant, comic and touching, Repentance is one of the best films to come out of the Soviet Union.
Inventive, poignant, comic and touching, Repentance is one of the best films to come out of the Soviet Union.