Georgia on My Mind

In the former Soviet republic, chaos reigns Since Otar Left

Although we're naturally inclined to assume that the fall of communism made things better across the board for former Soviets, those with long memories may see things differently. In the Republic of Georgia, elderly Eka Goguebachvili (90-year-old Esther Gorintin, stooped and slow-moving but full of life) remembers the Stalin era as one in which she had consistent water and power, and refuses to accept that the deceased dictator ever ordered a single unjustified death sentence. Her son Otar is doing better for himself financially under the new world order, but to do so he's had to go west, to Paris, where he works in construction despite the fact that he's qualified to be a doctor.

Otar's letters, often containing money, are the highlight of Eka's life; his phone calls are too often interrupted by spotty service. Eka has less time for the daughter who still lives with her: Marina (Nino Khomasuridze) is the one who has to keep the household in order, and this tends to give her an air of joylessness. Marina's adult daughter Ada (Dinara Drukarova) finds more favor with Grandma, in part because Ada reads out loud the books and letters that Eka's aging eyes can no longer traverse.

But Otar will soon leave in more ways than one -- Marina is the first to hear the news that her brother has died in an accident at work. Convinced that the news would be too unbearable for Eka, who may not live much longer anyway, she conspires with Ada to keep the death a secret. This is a scheme that requires some planning, as the letters from Otar need to keep coming (with money enclosed, ideally), and anyone else who knows must either be avoided or brought in on the secret.

Good Bye, Stalin: Eka's granddaughter and 
daughter conspire to make Eka believe her 
son is still alive.
Good Bye, Stalin: Eka's granddaughter and daughter conspire to make Eka believe her son is still alive.

This premise recalls the recent East German comedy Good Bye, Lenin!, in which a fragile mother had to be deceived into thinking the Berlin Wall had never fallen. Both Lenin and Otar make the point that communism itself was a similar lie, in which average people were repeatedly told that they were living in a utopia even as they sensed that the reality was not wholly pleasant. And the government controlled the media, censoring any international evidence to the contrary rather than risk the potential for unpleasant reactions among the citizenry.

Good Bye, Lenin!, however, seemed to imply that such a lie could be more merciful for some than the complexities of reality. Since Otar Left takes the opposite tack, and tries to jerk at your heartstrings as you watch Eka slowly going about her daily routine, oblivious to her son's death as plaintive music on the soundtrack demands that you cry, or something. The first half of the movie is painfully slow -- when Eka declares over the phone, "My life isn't very exciting," you'll be inclined to agree. Indeed, the film's likely to induce the fidgets in anyone who has recently drunk a caffeinated beverage.

Don't walk out, though. If you hang in there you'll get ... a car chase! Nah, just kidding. But there is some substantial emotional payoff, as psychological underpinnings are revealed, and the deception heads toward the breaking point when Eka takes it upon herself to fly to Paris and drop in on Otar unannounced. Along the way, some of the characters realize they know each other better than they thought, while others are surprised at how little they really do know.

Director Julie Bertucelli, a former assistant director on two of the entries in Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Trois Couleurs" trilogy, doesn't have a very distinctive visual style, but she's aided tremendously by the architecture and scenery of Georgia, a land most Americans will not be familiar with in the slightest. By the time the plot finally gets in motion, the location has changed to the more familiar setting of Paris, where we can focus on the characters, who have at last become interesting enough to hold our attention on their own.

 
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