Thursday, September 11, 2014

Flowers in the Wreckage

Lika Babluani and Mariam Bokeri in In Bloom

My local arthouse runs a series of recent international cinema every fall. They call it "The Passport Series" and the conceit is that they hand out a punch card with your ticket and if you attend at least six of the eight films in the series, they throw your card in a hopper and give you a chance to win passes for the St. Louis Film Festival later in the year. They also theme the series around wine, but I don't imbibe, so that's never something I notice. I do like the idea of a passport, though, as a kind of tally of cinematic destinations (in lieu of actual travel, which I usually can't afford). I often approach this series with the attitude of a collector: Do I have this country yet? I've seen films from an impressive number of countries. In any event, this year's series kicks off with a Georgian film, and I can check that country off the list now.

In Bloom (2013, directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß), finds neo-realism alive and well in Georgia. Set in the immediate aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet empire, this details the coming of age of two teenage girls, Eka and Natia, who are best friends. They live in the wreckage of Tblisi, where they stand in line for bread, are terrorized by autocratic teachers, and where they fend off the aggressions of boys. It would be easy for the filmmakers to use their story as some kind of grand historical gesture, but this is too smart for that. This finds itself following the path of other neo-realists who find in the lives of their characters broad possibilities for melodrama. In Bloom is also a withering critique of patriarchy.

Lika Babluani and Mariam Bokeri in In Bloom

Eka lives with her mother and older sister. Her older sister is flighty and vapid and gossips with her friends about boys and smokes cigarettes on the sly. Eka's father is in jail. The movie hints that he killed the father of one of the boys who torments Eka on the way back from school every day. Natia's family is dysfunctional. Her father is a drunk who quarrels constantly with her mother, much to the annoyance of her grandmother and younger brother. Natia is a beauty, courted by two men: the shy, soulful Lado and the brusque, impulsive Kote, who refuses to take her "no" for an answer. Lado, for his part, gives Natia a gift: a gun. For protection, he says. Lado is absent quite a bit--he has an uncle with business in Moscow--so he's not around to "protect" her. Eka and Natia share the gun between them, each viewing it with fascination as both something horrible and as a potential solution to their mutual problems. Eka eventually uses it to scare off her tormenters. Natia's dilemma isn't so easy. Kote and his gang of friends abduct her in order to compel her to marry him. Facing shame and (presumably) rape, she does. Kote is a smothering, jealous husband, and when Lado returns from Moscow, tempers flare and tragedy soon follows...

One of the first things we hear on the soundtrack in this film is a radio talk show in which one of the pundits descants on how he thinks that all Georgians should go armed. Everyone should have a sword, he says. It sets the tone of the film. There's always, always a threat of violence in the negative spaces here. When Lado's gun comes into the film, it acts as a talisman, or as a version of the Sword of Damocles. It's Chekhov's Gun in its bluntest, most literal form. The radio noise throughout the film reminds me of the way Tobe Hooper imparted a society spinning out of control using the same device in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The world outside the film frame here is in chaos. That chaos slowly intrudes into the lives of the characters in the frame.

In Bloom

This is is a film about women, obviously, a fact emphasized in the scene where Eka's sister has a gathering of friends over to gossip and misbehave. As a distaff version of a neorealist melodrama, it chooses much different resolutions to its various plot threads than you might expect from a film by, say, Visconti or Rossellini. There's a lot of macho posturing in this film, and almost all of it is seen through the eyes of its protagonist as actively malign. The film hinges not on the violence it compels its two heroines to perform, but rather on the violence from which they choose to refrain. The film is no less brutal for that, because the men in the film have no such compunctions. Eka is the point of view for the film and Lika Babluani, who plays her, has a lacerating gaze. The force of her judgement on Natia's marriage and Kote's family (who have just issued a toast to the women in their family) as she hate-dances at the wedding radiates from the screen. She still has the black eye from the man who strikes her for calling out the crowd's cowardice when Natia is kidnapped in front of them.

Lika Babluani and Mariam Bokeri in In Bloom

The violence perpetrated by men starts young in this film's worldview.  Eka's bullies are younger than her, and one of them has a butterfly knife and affects moves he's seen in Jackie Chan movies. They don't just prey on Eka, either. Eka shrugs them off when she's their target, but when they torment a younger boy, Eka intervenes with the threat of force. Natia's father is a different kind of violence--directed at his family and mostly bluster, but it's indiscriminate and splashes onto all of the members of her family, from her brother, Gio, hiding in the bathroom, to her grandmother, whose stock of wine ends up shattered on the floor. By contrast, we never see Eka's father. His violence, whatever it might be, has removed him from the picture, and the film studiously avoids his story even at the end when Eka finally goes to visit him in prison. The choice to cut to black as Eka finally comes face to face with him--and we don't see him in a reverse shot--is striking. Kote's violence is entirely more directed. If brute masculinity is only background noise and bluster in the other men in the film, Kote's is a directed and horrible misogyny. He views women as property, to be taken and defended and violated as he sees fit. He's the very model of an abusive spouse who cuts his wife off from her friends and family and "corrects" her for minor failings. His sense of entitlement to her is brittle and easily threatened and his response to this is murderous.

Mariam Bokeri in In Bloom

I don't think this is a film that could have been directed by a male filmmaker. This is clearly Nana Ekvtimishvili's film, regardless of whether or not she has a male co-director. She wrote the film based on her own memories of growing up in Tblisi in the early 1990s and there's a core of lived experience in the details, whether it's the politics of navigating a breadline or the chatter among girls in bathrooms and weddings and private gatherings where there are no men. There's a palpable sense of place in this film, too, and even a sense of geography as we watch the characters walk to their various destinations. All of this is beautifully shot with an almost clinical eye by Oleg Mutu, a ringer from the Romanian cinema. Ekvtimishvili and co-director Simon Groß are natural-born filmmakers. They have a gift for naturalism and for deliberate long takes and they know the value of carefully placing and moving the camera in space. This is one of those contemporary art films that eschews a score, but unlike some films where that choice tends to annul the pleasures provided by cinema as entertainment, in this film, that choice is matter of keeping things from boiling over. Like most melodramas, this has the potential to boil over. The directors exercise remarkable restraint. Instead, you have an implacable narrative that swells more like a tidal force than a wave, and by the end of the film, its power is undeniable. This is a beautiful and heartbreaking film.

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