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Monday, July 16, 2012

Otar Iosseliani | Giorgobistve (Falling Leaves)

no time for principles
by Douglas Messerli

Amiran Chichinadze (writer), Otar Iosseliani (director) Giorgobistve (Falling Leaves) / 1966

Georgian director Otar Ioseliani's 1966 feature film begins as a kind of slow documentary-like presentation of the Georgian countryside in the height of the wine-making season. The director begins with the picking of the grapes and their travels to the various small farms where they are stuffed into small bins and crushed, the old fashioned way, by foot, their juices traveling to various bottles and crocks above and below ground. The scene ends with a large afternoon dinner on one farm, piles of food and wine being served up to a large grouping of men by the women, and finally the tables filled with empty plates, napkins, overturned cups and newspapers blowing in the early evening wind. It is, of course, a paradisiacal vision of Georgian country life, a world in which the peasants celebrate their own farming successes, a direct linking of the land and the people who inhabit it.




      The film then quickly transfers to the city, with a short breakfast-table scene where a mother and father are outraged by their son, who dresses in a black shirt rather than a white, and refuses to eat what his mother has put upon the table. The generations here are at war. Soon after, however, Ioselliani takes us into a another home where a slightly wealthier family lives, the walls filled with photographs of well-dressed relatives posing, apparently, at their summer estates. Here, a young man, Nico (Ramaz Giorgobiani) awakens his three sleeping nieces and calls into awaken his sleeping mother and sister. In the kitchen he puts on the coffee pot and carefully fills a bowl with water to feed the balcony plants. A peaceful breakfast follows before he is collected by a friend, Otari (Gogi Kharabadze), the two clearly on their way to get their passports before applying for a job. From the very first moment forward, we recognize Otari on the rise, well dressed and positive about his future, critical of his more slovenly and slightly awkward friend, Nico. As they go through their applications, the differences between the two young men become even more apparent. In the wine-making collective where they apply for a job, Nico admits that he occasionally drinks and gambles, that he is only an average student, while Otari is above average and shares none of his friend's vices. He is sent to the lab, while Nico is sent into the wine cellars.

     Predictably, however, Nico gets on better with his fellow workers, including a neighborhood girl, Marine (Marina Kartsivadze) with whom most of the men in the plant are in love, and in only a few days, Marine, an outright flirt who plays each of the men off against the others, has granted Nico two meetings, while ignoring the attentions of the better dressed and more suave Otari. The working men, moreover, have known Nico's father, and it is clear, that despite Nico's inability to properly express himself and his general shyness—seeming at times even to be a bit simple minded, more like a child than a young man on the rise—that he is more beloved by all, including the impatient head of the wine factory (Aleqsandre Omiadze).

     Ioselliani structures his film in terms of different days of week, as we see Nico quickly making his way up the company ladder to become an equal of Otari, despite his slightly slow-mindedness. During the weekends he drinks and sings with his fellow workers, runs into Marine once more, and is abandoned by her for her girlfriends. A local thug, who is also interested in Marine, even threatens him. Yet Nico is so placid that he appears, at times, as psychically dead. Certainly, he has few of the aspirations of his friend Otari.

     The wine factory, meanwhile, is being reminded that they must reach their annual quota for production demanded by the Russian authorities. The workers are well aware that the cask that is scheduled for bottling is not yet up to snuff, the wine of inferior quality.

      As the staff meets to sample the wine and make the decision, they, one by one, defer to the schedule, agreeing to bottle the wine instead of giving it more time or adding gelatin to it which might enrichen its taste. It would take too long to properly ferment. Only Nico, now a lab assistant, refuses to sign on, stubbornly insisting that the company keep to the high level of products it is known for. The head of the company chastises him for his stubbornness, and others, including Otari are furious for his inability to go along with what seems inevitable. This is no time for principles, they argue. Even the head of the company's young, piano-playing son, explains to Nico that is not thinking, that although Nico has more in common the head than the others—the company head also drinks, gambles and plays billiards—he going about it the wrong way.

      From his idealist perspective, embedded into his thinking through the gentle grace of his family, the contemporary world seems to have no place for him, and little by little, his faith is worn away, his diffidence erased. Marine once again invites him to her apartment only to make fun of him in front of her girlfriend. The local thug again threatens him, finally blackening Nico's eye. Attempting to turn to his working friends, he finds them all out with their families for the weekend. For the first time, Nico at home reveals his anger, reverberating across his nieces' faces and the gentle passivity of his mother.

     The next day at work, the cask is scheduled to be emptied into bottles, but before anyone can begin the process, Nico orders the workers to infuse it with gelatin. The plant managers, discovering what he has done, are outranged, Otari on the attack. Their jobs have been jeopardized. Called into the factory head's office, they wait to hear of Nico's firing. Yet suddenly, the plant head orders the others out, while quietly praising Nico for his acts. Although clearly he nor anyone at the plant would dare to disobey Moscow, Nico, through his committed individualism, has sustained the plant's reputation. Marine is seen pouting in the background, as the shy young man now refuses to talk with her. Despite his aspirations, Otari is the failure in this business, a stooge willing to betray his own county for personal success.

      Although the film is somewhat simplistic in its thematic, the excellent direction and acting of its characters helped Iosseliani's film win the FIPRESCI prize at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, and its black-and-white images remain memorable.

Los Angeles, July 15, 2012

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