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Composition (of place) in five movements to inhabit Otar Iosseliani’s films
By Carlos Reviriego
In the short film, Akvarel (1958), which Otar Iosseliani (Tiflis, Georgia, 1934) made as a student at the Moscow VGIK (Soviet Union Film Institute), a humble peasant walks out on his parental obligations and leaves home, leaving behind the clamour of his wife and three children. Now in the street, when he realises that his wife is following him to make him go back home, he enters an exhibition hall. There, intermingling with the visitors, like a desperate animal in a calm space, he stops to look at The Thinker by Rodin. His reaction is surprising. Later, when his furious wife has found him, he stands in front of a painting. [The camera takes the place of the painting, the peasant looks at us]. The museum guides explain that the composition and the colours of the watercolour evoke noble values, such as honesty and family harmony. The visitors nod in agreement. The peasants look astonished. When the couple is left alone in front of the painting, we realise that it is a portrait of the house where they live (and whose exact frame we saw at the beginning of the film), the “home” where their children are alone.
In this brief story, 24-year old Iosseliani, the newcomer, raises a question that will be echoed in diverse ways in the 25 films (including short films, documentaries and fiction feature films) that he will make over the next half century: how can art, with its inherent gesture of resistance, embalm a life, a culture, an emotion, to give them a harmonious meaning and hence restore the natural order of things. Perhaps, the most intriguing question that emerges from the way in which he has portrayed the contradictions arising from the clash between what is real (life) and what is made up (fiction) throughout all his works, is that whose response the spectators must continue looking for: can art perpetuate the purity of things, stop the demolitions of time, ultimately correct the insuperable setbacks in life?
In Pastorale (1976), the musicians from a string quartet get out of the city and settle in a small rural village to rehearse their repertoire in the peace and quiet of the country. Iosseliani films the respectful meeting between the village children and the urban visitors, who play their instruments on the front porch, aware of recording a moving and epiphanic moment. It is a moment of purity.
In Otar Iosseliani’s films, the experience of happiness is an acquired right - unavoidable. If we prefer, we can call it joy or pleasure, harmony or serenity, placidness or indifference. When we discover that the flow of his films is down to the invisible plot, an existential rhythm taken from routines, liturgies and eccentricities, generally a far cry from the pace imposed by script films –with their calculated dramatic twists–, we understand that those moments of calm jubilation arise not so much from a cinematographic style that favours the evolution of the characters in a time to experiment and a space to inhabit but as a style (or a philosophy) of life. His films, so impeccably imperfect, like everything that is worth remembering, do not aim to impress us with conscious actions through which his authorship is endorsed, but do not cease to challenge the spectator’s sensitivity and detonate the expectations of the film language.
Explorer of images in movement, the Georgian filmmaker can illuminate this happy state of the soul which he refused to describe. It has to be experienced from many tones. From celebration (Pastorale and Ancient Georgian Songs, 1968) or melancholy (Monday Morning, 2002), in the past (Brigands Chapter VII, 1996) or contemporary times (Once Upon a Time, There Was a Singing Blackbird, 1971), from the vital proximity of his job (Cast Iron, 1964) or in the remoteness of an African fable (And Then There Was Light, 1989), through classic documentary observation (A Small Monastery in Tuscany, 1988) or through the most formalist and experimental fiction (April, 1962), with a colourful floral symphony (Song about a Flower, 1959) or allowing that a fertile exchange between life and representation, particularly in his amazing Georgian feature films which are so valid four decades later, spreads its mantle of contagious experience on screen.
Perhaps, like no other filmmaker since Jean Renoir and Luis Buñuel, with artisanal indolence and wise humbleness, the epicurean Iosseliani has fostered detailed film aimed at notarizing the wonders and absurdities of existence, the delights and disappointments of the world. Not in vain do several of his films open with a pregnant image: a front shot taken from outside, of somebody (generally a woman) opening a window to the beauty of the world. Whether a musician in the Bohemian life of Tiflis, five monks in the monastery of Castelnuovo or a bizarre gallery of characters in a Parisian district, particularly in Favourites of the Moon, 1983, and in Farewell, Home Sweet Home, 1999, the joy of life is summoned by both presence and absence, either because it surprises his dilettante creatures (and the spectator), or because it stubbornly sidesteps the search for wellbeing that some characters who are prone to the Bohemian life and drifting, bodies in movement broken down by the rigours of the city.
In what we could consider to be his absolute film, like 8½ for Federico Fellini or Playtime for Jacques Tati, the fiction film, Farewell, Home Sweet Home in which he sets out the rules of the game for his films and oozes the essence of his vision of the world and men, Iosseliani plays the role of the patriarch locked up in his stately mansion, at odds with his eccentric wife, who whiles his hours away hunting, drinking, flirting with the servant and playing with an electric train (Wasn’t it Orson Welles who compared the job of a filmmaker with that of a boy playing with his miniature train?), until he finds the best companion: a singing tramp who is fond of his wine. At the end of the tale, he will give up the comfort of his bourgeoisie life as if he were a thief in his own home to flee with the indigent, singing and drinking on a small boat along the Seine.
In this final flight, like in so many of his films, the filmmaker makes a declaration of principles: music and wine cannot be renounced. We sense, along with Cinema Scope magazine, that a bottle of wine has the same nobility as a work of art for the greatest of Georgian directors. In his films, Iosseliani practises the art of oenology and that of ethnology, as if the soul of men and their identifying culture can only meet through their small pleasures. In his Letter 128, Epicurus of Samos explained to Menoeceus that “pleasure is the beginning and end of a blessed life”. It is possible that the mechanisms of happiness are irrelevant, but compared to the profound instants of vital harmony that the author of the comedy Gardens in Autumn (2006) has called up on screen – as if his only religion, beyond film, were “the intelligent search for pleasure” that the Athenian philosopher professed –, and therefore we should not ignore (quite the contrary) the wells of pain and desolation in which his films also portray (particularly the outcomes), we feel tempted to rescue an ironic image in his films, present in all of his films as if it were his signature: a group of people singing and drinking around a bottle of wine.
Iosseliani’s films, therefore, have to be inhabited like transit and co-existence with the lives of others. He invites us to go inside some point of the shot, shots of congenital beauty which almost never show us where we should look – and co-exist with adults who behave like children and children who act like adults. He does not ask us to understand them. Indeed, the ethical behaviour of his creatures is often reprehensible. He asks us to accompany them from the certainty that, like our own lives, the film also moves forward without any apparent direction or destination.
As a man of science and art (before studying Maths and Film with the Soviet masters of silent film, he graduated from the Conservatory of Music in Tiflis), his films seek the balance between poetry of flight, as they seem to be designed and structured as polyphonic compositions based on the counterpoint of voices. We may even dare say that Iosseliani essentially perpetuates the art of musical film, as it is the sound and secret rhythms imposed by the montage that push the true meaning of his tales, the spells of the happy spirit of his films. Under this concept, he took his first steps in film – in the magical April, for example, the characters communicate in a non-existent language, whilst the short documentary Song About a Flower, a substitute for Earth (1930) by Dovzhenko, is a precious object of experimentation with colours and music–, and since then, he has always favoured the grammar of silent film, which is not silent (sound takes on narrative importance), compared with spoken film. What is truly important is never articulated in a rhetoric speech and the characters are always defined by what they do rather than by what they say.
His films work to a certain extent as pastoral pieces, understanding the term in its broadest sense, both in its musical and theatre side but also related to shepherds. In Iosseliani’s oenologist interest and love of music, we find this sweet image of men singing and drinking– a militant defence of the arcane, of tradition, of rural ways of life threatened by progress and industrialisation, the central theme in which his early works converge, which not in vain, emerge as metaphors of the growing Soviet presence in the ancient Georgian culture. Iosseliani introduces the real element in his fiction –he does so in the beautiful documentary preface on the art of winemaking with which he kicks off his first feature film, Falling Leaves (1967), not so much as a visionary gesture of the hybridization that the art of film will develop, but as a preservationist stance. Europe has proven to be extremely effective in the extermination of memory. The filmmaker films what he loves because he does not want it to disappear.
The beauty of his short documentaries comes to a great extent from this fight against the degradation of civilizations and cultures. Iosseliani films the choirs of voices in Georgian Ancient Songs as if they were the echoes of the mountains, the ghostly remains of such an ancient culture as the landscapes which have emerged and been cultivated. Years later, he recovers this same evocative strategy, merging music and mountains, in the Euskadi Eté documentary, showing his respect for “Basque shepherds and farmers”, proud of having defended their culture and language, “the oldest in Europe”, throughout history. In French exile, travelling through Heleta, Pagola and Baigorri, Iosseliani seems to be searching for (and finding) the arcane spirits of his native Georgia.
Called to inhabit his films, the filmmaker acts like a genuine master of ceremonies. The screen is going to show the liturgies that define the men, those that make them happy and integrate them in the culture that they try to transmit or in the idyllic society of sweet co-existence that in some way always ends up rearing in his human wall hangings. The filmmaker from Tiflis is interested in rituals as a dorm of joint manifestation and portraits of the social psychology, a hotbed of eccentric characters of dubious morality who, like errant souls, desperately seek the pleasant lucidity, taxless love, purity in tatters. Something as evasive as life itself.
The underlying structure in these searches is therefore the organic succession of rituals, whether pagan or religious, sacred or hedonist, which take on a nature which is as trivial as transcendent in their contemplation. Not only the religious, theatre or musical rituals, a wedding in an African community or the traditional festivities of the Basque Country, he also films minimal and everyday gestures (the act of toasting and singing, for example, or craftwork, metal casting and agricultural activity), extracting all the symbolic value from the liturgy, which turns the act into an eminent gesture.
He gets wrapped up in an infertile exercise, trying to determine at which point of the unique parable which he filmed in Africa, And Then There Was Light, the documentary review gives way to fictitious construction and vice-versa. The filmmaker seems to blend into the spirit of the country he is portraying, and far from filming like white filmmakers have always filmed the black continent (with a guilty conscience, anthropological pretensions or exacerbating exoticism), Iosseliani relates to the comic alchemy of Jean Rouch to introduce the destabilizing elements of the fable. In the first minutes of the film, the felling of a giant tree foresees the crushing of a community by the fauces of the timber industry (lorries and tractors like destruction tanks), to go on to show a resurrection ritual which establishes the ultraterrenal charisma of film: the magic, nothing can confront the machinery. In the unforgettable final shot, like a comic vignette, the arcane wooden effigies end up wearing the trade clothes.
It is inevitable to detect the same kind of innocence of primitive film, this fortunate lyrical and aesthetic forcefulness in the pure breath of these images. We could explain his close ties with silent film, explicitly evoked in And Then There Was Light or in Chantrapas (2010), from the biographic details of his studies under the masters disillusioned with the Soviet film cause –Dovzjenko, Kuleshov or Kozintsev are among the teachers at the Moscow school–, although there is something that transcends the stylistic and tributary option to give way to a natural system in the filmmaker’s outlook. With the wisdom enveloped in innocence or complexity dressed up as simplicity, his way of scrutinizing the human race is steeped in powerful romanticism and naive humour, particularly when pausing on the great themes that have always concerned poetic expression: the legacies of love and death.
We can look at the time scales of his filmography, on how the Georgian has taken long intervals between each film (although the production is extensive and far-travelled), to explain this undetermined rhythm that pushes his creatures, that takes over the extraordinarily unique time of his tales which in many cases are conceived as daily chronicles, at some point between stillness and movement, or between work and recreation, between duty and pleasure. It is extremely relevant that in Cast Iron, one of his first short documentaries, Iosseliani feels the need to film his workmates during breaks, having lunch and chatting, and see how they work in contrast with the effort and sweat of the metal workers in the casting furnaces.
In Farewell, Home Sweet Home, the young star helps a tramp of his own age to write on a piece of cardboard the most effective message to beg for money. “We are working”, convincing each other. Perhaps the characteristic rhythm of his films is explained in these dynamic motors between work and dead time, as if the forward flight of the Iosseliani’s creatures, like his own, were always undertaken under the awareness of the free time that awaits them, a destination which we known the filmmaker will never shatter. These are those sacred truces with life that Iosseliani has known how to film, like no other filmmaker that we can remember, returning the dignity and nobility to his characters, and forcing us to yearn for the sweet flavour of comradeship and camaraderie, as fleeting or illusionary as it may be, forcing us to wake up.
Epilogue. In the semi-biographical and parodic Chantrapas, his last film to date, Iosseliani is filmed as the only spectator of a film that his young alter-ego has filmed in fiction. It is as if Iosseliani is closing a circle, after suffering the obsessive (and comical) political censorship in his native Georgia. The young Nicolas, whose appearance and idealist character are so reminiscent of Nico in his first feature film, Falling Leaves, emigrates to Paris determined to express his art without anybody condemning him to silence. However, in the free and democratic France, censorship has another side: that of an economic nature. When the young filmmaker finally manages to premiere his film, just two spectators, Iosseliani and his wife, remain seated until the end of the screening. The young Nico then says to the distributor: “You knew it wasn’t a very entertaining film”.
Probably, this class of solitude is (happily) what must be accepted by a filmmaker who, throughout his career, has always kept away from being a slave to the industry’s trends, who has overcome with dignity the political and economic censorship in his own path through the carousel of images. The solitude of a filmmaker equipped with speech and an outlook that are not only incorruptible but also unrepeatable in terms of lucidity and lyricism, and are therefore called to be used in the clashes of memory. Ironically, in his films, we will never feel alone in the world.