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A decade or more before its completion in 1984, Tengiz Abuladze's powerful political film Repentance would have been unthinkable in the Soviet Union. Even in the more relaxed and open climate of the perestroika/glasnost era in the second half of the 1980s and with support from high officials, notably Eduard Shevardnadze and Mikhail Gorbachev, the film had its difficulties and would not be widely released for three more years, premiering at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival.
Georgian filmmaker Abuladze's attack on Stalinism and its heirs incorporates surreal touches and moments of dark humor into a parable of the evils of tyranny. The story follows events after the death of the mayor of a small Georgian town, Varlam Aravidze, a man responsible for a lengthy Stalin-like reign of terror in the town. A day after the funeral, Aravidze's corpse appears in the garden of his son's house. It's reburied, only to turn up again, leading to the arrest of a woman who says he has no right to burial because of his past actions. At her trial, the story of Aravidze's regime is told in flashbacks.
Abuladze began his career in the 1950s, making 11 documentaries, TV movies, shorts, and features through the mid 70s. Following a near fatal car accident and months of recovery in hospital, he set out in 1981 to write "something that really mattered; something important." The script was ready in 1982, and although it was sharply critical of Soviet rule, he was sure he could get it made. The script was sent to Shevardnadze, then head of the Georgian Communist Party and later Minister of Foreign Affairs under Gorbachev. Shevardnadze liked it and made some suggestions, but because no picture could be made without the approval of the Soviet film council Goskino, Abuladze decided to make Repentance under a rule that authorized Georgian television to produce a single cultural program annually, pending approval of its theme by Moscow. Permission was granted based on a single telegram drawing on the director's reputation: "Tengiz Abuladze will shoot a program on a moral-esthetic subject." The movie was shot in five months in 1984 using Georgian artists and actors, many of them his friends and family.
Repentance was delivered to Goskino on Christmas that year and shelved for nearly two years. Abuladze refused to make any changes, firm in his belief the story would one day be seen widely. Eventually, Gorbachev saw the film and liked it, as did Minister of Culture Aleksandr Yaklovev, who sent it to Cannes. The movie was cleared for exhibition in the USSR in the more open atmosphere of the final years of Communist control, and international distribution followed shortly after, almost unheard of for a Georgian-made motion picture. Such was the success of the production that Abuladze was asked to accompany Gorbachev on his first official visit to New York in 1988. New York Times critic Janet Maslin praised the film on its December 1987 opening in the city, noting that the skill with which it was made was "sure to be eclipsed in importance by the fact that it was made at all."
The one place where the film did not break through quickly was in East Germany. It had been broadcast on West German television in October 1987 and widely seen by people in the Communist-controlled part of the country, where it was banned, but the damage had been done. East German viewers found clear similarities to their own oppressive regime in the film's story, forcing the authorities and press there to begin a campaign to denounce a movie that officially its citizens could not even see.
Repentance won wide international acclaim, including three top prizes at Cannes (among them the Grand Prix), two at the Chicago International Film Festival, and a Golden Globe nomination as Best Foreign Language Film. In itself, these honors from the West were not nearly as remarkable as the film's six wins (Best Film, Director, Actor, Cinematographer, Screenplay, and Production Designer) in the 1988 Nika Awards, the Soviet (and now Russian) equivalent of the Academy Awards. The scathing satire had been a phenomenon in its home country, one of the earliest signals of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Abuladze made only one other film, Khadzhi Murat (1989) before his death in 1994 at the age of 70.
Director: Tengiz Abuladze
Screenplay: Tengiz Abuladze, Nana Janelidze, Rezo Kveselava
Cinematography: Mikhail Agranovich
Editing: Guliko Omadze
Production Design: Giorgi Miqeladze
Original Music: Nana Janelidze
Cast: Avtandil Makharadze (Varlam/Abel), Iya Ninidze (Guliko), Zeinab Botsvadze (Ketevan), Ketevan Abuladze (Nino), Edisher Giorgobiani (Sandro)
By Rob Nixon