Repentance: the extraordinary inside story of Tengiz Abuladze’s swansong masterpiece

Tengiz Abuladze on the set of Repentance. Image: Margarita Shengelia

31 January 2024 marked the centenary of Tengiz Abuladze: one of the most heralded figures in Soviet cinema history and a figurehead for postwar Georgian film. Abuladze, who died in 1994 at the age of 70, was one of a cohort of arthouse directors – Otar Iosseliani, Eldar Shengelaia – whose alternately lyrical, subversive, and confessional works came to define Georgian cinema. Abuladze’s crowning achievement was the so-called “trilogy of truth”: three films about the price of personal conviction, inspired by the distant and recent history of his homeland. In the words of critic Carmen Gray, “Abuladze’s heroes and heroines are the kind of renegades that prefer the high price of death to hypocrisy, as irreconcilable conflicts between freedom and duty, the past and the future, weigh upon them.” After The Plea (1967) and The Wishing Tree (1976) came Repentance (1984) – for many the most important film in the history of Georgian cinema, and one of the inflections points in late Soviet culture more broadly.

Repentance represented the first time a Soviet filmmaker had directly confronted the legacy of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s. Produced before the era of perestroika and glasnost, it was banned shortly after its initial release on Georgian television, only resurfacing in 1987 as censorship loosened – at which point it was quickly hailed as an allegorical masterpiece both at home and abroad. The film’s black comic parable plays out over two timelines in a nameless, timeless town, and concerns the legacy of a dictatorial mayor named Varlam Aravidze (Avto Makharadze), whose recently interred corpse is repeatedly dug up and desecrated by the daughter of one of his past victims. Her subsequent trial brings to light the brutality of Varlam’s rule, causing ruptures to emerge between his son Abel (Makharadze again in a dual role) and grandson Tornike (Merab Ninidze). Abuladze’s cinematic testimony combines religious symbolism with knowing references to the various ghosts of 20th-century totalitarianism. He never completed another film.

Nana Janelidze is a filmmaker and producer whose ties to Abuladze were both professional and personal: she was his daughter-in-law. Janelidze co-wrote the script for Repentance, as well as serving as assistant director and as the film’s music director. Together with Nino Natrosvili, she wrote Tengiz Abuladze: Reflections, first published in 2009, which gathers reminscences from the director’s friends and collaborators. To mark Abuladze’s centenary, we present here an edited and abridged translation of Janelidze’s own recollections of working on Repentance, featuring behind the scenes photos from the production from photographer Margarita Shengelia.

Tengiz Abuladze and Nino Zaqariadze on the set of Repentance. Image: Margarita Shengelia

After he produced The Wishing Tree (1977), Tengiz Abuladze was pondering a future film. It was still a long time before Gorbachev and perestroika, and gerontocracy was flourishing in Brezhnev’s USSR.

Shortly before Abuladze completed work on The Wishing Tree, but before starting on Repentance, he was involved in a terrible car crash: the driver died on the spot, and he himself escaped by a miracle. He became convinced that it this meant one thing: he had to create something of importance. Soon after that, work on Repentance began.

Once, as I remember, Abuladze returned home very excited. An acquaintance had told him a real story that took place in western Georgia in 1937. A high-ranking KGB man had sought favours from the beautiful wife of a bookkeeper. He sent her family off to a labour camp and became the wife’s lover. Years passed, and the security officer died a natural death, thus escaping justice – but the son of the deported father made up his mind to commit a monstrosity. At night, this avenger dug up the recently buried officer and dumped his corpse near his house. This story became the core of Repentance; we detected at once its dramatic composition, firmly binding the past to the present.

The repressions that had taken place under Stalin’s regime were a forbidden subject, although on the sly we certainly read dissident literature smuggled into the Soviet Union. However, in this case we were dealing with a complex thing: the production of a film, in the context of censorship that safeguarded the state’s interests and ideology. It was incredible!

But shooting the film was the last stage of the process. First, we had to come up with a script, and that meant a period of quiet, uninterrupted work.

before starting on Repentance, Abuladze was involved in a terrible car crash: the driver died on the spot, and he himself escaped by a miracle. He became convinced that it this meant one thing: he had to create something of importance.

We believed that eventually the film would be played before audiences. Therefore, in order not to lose courage, we decided to produce the film for ourselves: if only “for the shelf”, the term used in the USSR to refer to films that did not make it to the screen. I was young and optimistic and insisted on having a good script first: fate would take care of the future.

However, Abuladze was more serious, so he decided first of all to show the synopsis of the film to Eduard Shevardnadze, who for ten years had governed Georgia as head of its Communist Party. Shevardnadze had always actively participated in Georgian cultural life and personally knew the leaders of the creative intelligentsia, including Abuladze. Tengiz brought the synopsis to Shevardnadze; the synopsis presented, without any essential changes, the real history, and at that time had nothing in common with the future script. But it did contain the plot: repressions, victims, vengeance. Soviet power in the eighties was inviolable and showed no signs of break-up. I cannot know what political presentiment Shevardnadze had at that moment, how he envisaged the future – but the thing is the plot was given the go-ahead. As Tengiz said: “[Shevardnadze’s] wife’s family had been repressed, and that psychologically affected his sister-in-law’s health. 1937 is a bitter remembrance for him even today, whenever he casts a look at the inconsolable victim in his house.”

Tengiz Abuladze and Rusudan Kiknadze on the set of Repentance. Image: Margarita Shengelia

We started our work. Abuladze had a peculiarity in his work: he never imposed his ideas and suggestions on colleagues, he was an ideal listener. He would listen attentively and repeatedly to everybody and never jumped to conclusions. Then, alone, he would sift through his impressions and come up with the essence – the gold!

The conception of the film, as I remember it, was our primary concern. We were not satisfied with the banal story of a security officer who raped a woman. We intended to generalise the episode: to depict a man of authority and to raise him to the level of the image of evil, a devil, a lothario, an artistic and talented cynic. We would contrast him with a free personality, a creator, an artist, who – not wishing to participate in this pandemonium – would rather become a victim than a member of the devil’s retinue.

For us, it was a matter of principle. The Stalin era had ended, the majority of the victims had been rehabilitated, and, to paraphrase Boris Pasternak, we had entered another millennium. To stick with the original story would have been like swinging your arms after the fight has ended; in a way, it was unethical. However, our task was to point out that the old ways of thinking and reasoning had such deep roots that they destroyed the next generation and the generation of the grandchildren, innocent souls who are not privy to any cause. Therefore, Tornike was introduced into the film: the grandson of the dictator Varlam Aravidze, who eventually turns out to be a spiritual successor – not of his grandfather, but of the martyred Barateli family. Thus, the third generation makes its appearance, the generation of the sixties, paying for their fathers’ and grandfathers’ sins.

The majority of the male victims of Stalinism had been shot, and those who survived were so low-spirited and broken down that they refused to meet us. But the women, despite all the humiliation, shame, insults, and inhuman labour, were charming, full of animal spirit, humour, and brilliance.

As I have already mentioned, we had at our disposal the concept for and skeleton of the film. In the plot itself, where the past is so entwined with the present, there already existed a solid dramaturgy that embraced the epoch under consideration. We needed to add flesh to the bones. We started gathering material for this labourious and scrupulous task. And here I’d like to underline that all of it, all the focal points down to the minutest details – everything is based on original, specifically Georgian material. We established contact with people who had lived through repressions. There was hardly a family in Georgia that hadn’t suffered because of them. Long years of keeping silent made them eager to speak out. There was another interesting peculiarity. These people were mainly elderly women, former wives of the “enemies of the people”, who had been repressed and imprisoned namely as members of these “traitors’” families. The majority of the men had been shot, and those who survived were so low-spirited and broken down that they refused to meet us. But the women, despite all the humiliation, shame, insults, and inhuman labour, were charming, full of animal spirit, humour, and brilliance.

Tengiz Abuladze (right) and Kakhi Kavsadze (centre) on the set of Repentance. Image: Margarita Shengelia

Finally came the day when we completed the script. It turned out to be too bulky – one could hardly believe it could be shot in its entirety. Just to be on the safe side, we used Brezhnev’s words about the repressions of 1937 for the epigraph. Tengiz brought the script to Shevardnadze. Days of waiting for a reply turned into months. Brezhnev died. Chernenko – another old man – succeeded him, and so we hurriedly changed the wording of the epigraph. After another period of waiting, Abuladze was at last invited to meet with Shevardnadze.

Naturally Tengiz was very excited, because he understood that his fate was being decided for him. He met Shevardnadze, who admitted that he had been shocked by the script. Having read it, he couldn’t sleep due to the emotional shock. For several months, Shevardnadze considered making the film without notifying Moscow. In those days, all scripts had to be mailed to the central cinema agency Goskino in Moscow, where professional censors would go through them with a fine tooth comb to make sure that nothing anti-Soviet had been snuck in. Sending this script to Moscow was out of the question – but otherwise there was no way of obtaining money for the production of the film. Then we hit on a happy solution: in its broadcast schedule, Georgian TV retained two hours that were not supervised by Moscow, and what is more, these two hours were financed by Georgia. Therefore, it was decided to use this time slot and to finance the chunk of TV time it accounted for. This case had no precedent in Soviet cinema history. A message was sent to Moscow that simply said that Abuladze was making a film on “a moral-ethical topic”. The government of Georgia set aside about one million rubles for the film – a vast sum of money in those days.

The testimonies from victims of repression, the accusations brought against innocent people, were so monstrously unreal, absurd, and improbable that only phantasmagoria could convey them.

Now we faced another difficult task: that of choosing the right style for the production. As a director, Abuladze was known for formal decisions characteristic of his personality alone, though it should be said here that his films vary greatly in style. He usually decided upon a style after considering the conception of the film, and he would emphasise that the essential points of any artistic activity are its style and form.

The “Varlam epoch” as conceived in the film is in itself so absurd that it could only be shown on the screen by expressive means – absurdity, the grotesque, surrealism – and not through realism. We also had to determine the genre of the picture, a requirement of Soviet studio productions. “Grotesque tragicomedy”, “lyrical tragi-farce”, “sorrowful phantasmagoria”, we kept muttering… We found the key to the solution. Phantasmagoria, grotesque, surrealism: these are styles determined by the context. Otherwise, we would have failed to present the absurd reality of the Varlam era. The testimonies from victims of repression, the accusations brought against innocent people, were so monstrously unreal, absurd, and improbable that only phantasmagoria could convey them.

Tengiz Abuladze with his wife, Mzia Makhviladze, on the set of Repentance. Image: Margarita Shengelia

I cannot help mentioning the actor Avto Makharadze, who plays two leading roles in Repentance: both the dictator Varlam Aravidze and his son Abel. The thing is that Abuladze had offered Avto the role of Abel, but not the main role of the dictator. Having read the script, he thanked Tengiz for the kindness, but added that the character of Varlam appealed more to him and asked Tengiz for an audition. The latter promised to think it over, and quite unexpectedly two weeks later informed him that he would have to take on both parts. It was a godsend for Avto. We began planning out details of the outward appearances of these heroes to differentiate between them. We had imagined Varlam as lithe and smart, but Avto was stout and corpulent, and so he purposefully lost 20 kilograms. Our rehearsals were as serious and painstaking as those in the theatre and sometimes took the greater part of the night.

Varlam’s family name is not recognised in Georgia. It was coined from the word aravin, meaning “nobody”, “nonentity”. Varlam Nonentity. Beginning with Nero, all rulers with unlimited power can bear this name. It is a generic name for evil doers and dictators. True, the spectator is impressed by Varlam’s image – the role has been more effectively written – but maybe Abel is more dangerous. The image of Varlam is integral, but his acts are those of the devil and as such can perhaps be predicted. But since Abel has a dual consciousness, we can never be sure of anything. He is a corrupt man and does not differentiate between good and evil: “I wear a cross but preach atheism at the same time”, as he puts it. He is not interested in anything except his personal well-being. People of Abel’s kind easily breed future Varlams. They think that after them everything terminates – the earth, the Universe. That is why Abel appears to be more toneless, ungifted; his evil is extremely resilient and takes no blows, just like dough.

Varlam’s family name is not recognised in Georgia. It was coined from the word aravin, meaning “nobody”, “nonentity”. Varlam Nonentity. Beginning with Nero, all rulers with unlimited power can bear this name.

The film was completed in December 1984. Shortly afterwards, all the Georgian Central Committee Bureau members and Shevardnadze himself were invited to attend a preview. The party functionaries in those days were mostly in the habit of remaining in the background. The lights went down, and the screening started. The audience watched quietly, without any reactions, and it seemed they stopped breathing. In Tengiz’s words, Shevardnadze was glued to the screen. At last, the end came, the lights went up, but the deathly silence was not broken. Nobody looked at each other, the spectators did not speak, waiting instead for Shevardnadze to say something. But he too was silent for a considerable time – to Tengiz it seemed an eternity. Then Shevardnadze got up, came to Tengiz, kissed him, and said: “I am amazed. We need such films.”

That was a signal to the others. All those present rushed to Tengiz to kiss him and warmly shake his hand. When the excitement settled down and it became quiet in the hall, some suggestions were put forward. But in principle they did not alter anything. The main thing was that the picture was accepted and approved: it could meet with audiences. True, we were told not to play it before audiences until some alterations were made. The whole film was to be split into separate sections, using the initial material and scoring it for sound. A brief new episode had to be shot again, and all the phonograms rearranged and edited – even the copy had to be rewritten and printed again. We needed at least two months for all that. Though we had no presentiments about the picture and its fate, still we were not completely at ease.

Avto Makharadze as Varlam in Repentance. Image: Margarita Shengelia

The corrections were completed within a month. Friends advised Tengiz to have, just in case, a video copy of the director’s cut. In those days, video equipment was an innovation. A video copy could be made either at TV headquarters or in one of the Central Committee sectors. We were set against TV, as the station would have held copyrights over the film and could object to the request. Therefore, we used the other source: that was poorly equipped, and consequently the copy turned out to be defective. But in any case, it was the only copy, and it was stored in a desk in Tengiz’s apartment. He did not even study it, to say nothing of showing it to anyone. Besides, he firmly believed that by May it would be playing in public cinema halls.

It was already April by this point, and preparations were under way for the jubilee celebration of the fortieth anniversary of victory in the Second World War, so Abuladze waited for the end of the festivities, when the emotional excitement of the Stalinists would have subsided, and the film could be shown to the public without troublesome reactions. He gave no thought to any KGB measures against the film.

Then video cassettes of Repentance began started circulating in Tbilisi. We could not understand it at all – the only copy, technically defective in any case, was kept by Abuladze in his desk – but private homes across the capital were packed with people who wanted to see the film. What is more, at these gatherings it was always mentioned that Tengiz had personally donated the VHS. Later it becomes known that none of those people knew Abuladze personally. We could not make head or tail of it, though we were not worried, as we did not anticipate grave consequences.

victims of Stalinist repressions from Russia would fly to Tbilisi for a day, see the film, and fly back again the next day.

Abuladze himself was torn by contradictory sensations. On the one hand, he showed anger that the film was being played on cassettes where the perfection of its plastic movement was lost; and on the other, he was pleased, because these spectators were enraptured. The ban that was then imposed on the film gave additional piquancy to it. There were examples when victims of repressions from Russia would fly to Tbilisi for a day, see the film, and fly back again the next day.

All this was exciting enough and encouraging at the same time, but soon we learnt to our disappointment that Shevardnadze had been called to Moscow to fill the post of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR.

Later on, it became known that the KGB of Georgia had spread the cassettes and its chairman forwarded a report to the Moscow branch stating that Abuladze had produced an anti-Soviet film with Shevardnadze’s cooperation and was personally giving out cassettes. The report also hinted that there was a danger of cassettes being smuggled abroad. Ominous rumours about apartment searches were bandied out. Not only Tengiz himself, but his son was mentioned in the report. As was I, his daughter-in-law, the screenwriter, assistant director, and music director.

Abuladze was called to a meeting of the Georgian Communist Party, where the Second Secretary (it was a custom that a Russian, not a resident of Tbilisi occupied this post) said: “If the film lives on, you will be sent to the gulag for many years.”

Tengiz Abuladze. Image: Margarita Shengelia

But eventually the time came for salubrious changes. Elem Klimov, a noteworthy director, was appointed Secretary of the Cinema Union of the USSR. Perestroika began in the film industry.

Klimov intended to review all previously banned films and breathe new life into them. But the two directors who he sent to Georgia to view Repentance were not able to do so. There was only one way out left: somehow to smuggle the film to Moscow. And so, when the head of the Georgia-Film Studio, Rezo Chkheidze – himself a famous director (perhaps cinema lovers remember his films Look at These Young People! and The Soldier’s Father) – was taking his latest film, The Regional Committee Secretary, to Moscow, he packed Repentance in among the reels and successfully smuggled it out of Georgia.

When Klimov and his revolutionary team saw the film, they were deeply amazed. In conversation with Gorbachev, Klimov emphasised the importance of this film for the goals of perestroika in the arts.

In November 1986, the film was played in many towns across the USSR. At the Cannes Film Festival in 1987, Repentance received a Grand Prix, the Vatican prize, and the International FIPRESCI Prize.

The film turned out to be a revelation both within the USSR and for the countries of Eastern Europe. Not only was the past given voice, but there were prognostications for the future too: unless genuine repentance wins over the destruction of innocent victims caused by the criminal activity of the fathers and grandfathers, then dictatorship will remain a dreadful social phenomenon.

Events and developments in today’s world testify to the fact that the former USSR did not find the road to the temple.

Watch Repentance on Klassiki now. Explore our collection of films by Tengiz Abuladze here.