The poetry of insubordination: on Tengiz Abuladze’s “trilogy of truth”

Repentance (dir. Tengiz Abuladze, 1984)

A woman and her husband lie buried alive, side by side in the clotted earth of their native land. Only their heads are visible above the soil, and his intense gaze is fixed upon her. This vision from a nightmare is perhaps the best-known image from the haunting and surrealistic work of Tengiz Abuladze, one of Georgia’s most revered directors. It is from Repentance (1984), which, along with The Plea (1967) and The Wishing Tree (1976), comprises his magnum opus: a trilogy about people entrapped by and persecuted for their convictions. Poetic and brutal by turns, these three films are all in their distinctive ways odes to the truth — with truth emerging as the only thing that can give life genuine meaning, even as it is obscured and obstructed by the machinations of corrupt power. Defined by the actions and traditions of their forebears yet refusing to submit to false narratives or betray their authentic feelings, 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. Together, these films honour a rich Georgian culture of ancient roots and storied origins, that cannot be erased eternally by the brief yet nightmarish tumult of Soviet subjugation.

Abuladze was born in 1924 in Kutaisi, one of Europe’s oldest cities, founded long before the Middle Ages, when it served as Georgia’s first capital. He studied theatre direction in Tbilisi, and filmmaking at Moscow’s VGIK school, before joining Georgia Film Studios as a director, making films deeply rooted in the stories and life of his homeland. He initially collaborated with another Georgian director who went on to renown, Rezo Chkheidze (their 1955 feature debut Magdana’s Donkey was awarded at Cannes). As a filmmaker working within the rigorous ideological strictures of the Soviet Union, Abuladze joined the Communist Party, and was named a People’s Artist of the USSR in 1980, but became aligned with the push for greater freedom of expression championed by Mikhail Gorbachev when the reformer came to power.

“If I can’t sing, then I don’t pretend to sing,” Abuladze once said, rejecting the notion of artistic compromise

“If I can’t sing, then I don’t pretend to sing,” Abuladze once said, rejecting the notion of artistic compromise. He is best-known for his most direct condemnation of political terror and the Soviet repression of dissent and free expression, Repentance. It was shelved for several years after completion for being too controversial and was screened at Cannes in 1987 amid the sweeping changes of glasnost, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and was hailed as the symbol of a flourishing new cultural openness in the Soviet Union.

The first film of the trilogy, The Plea (1967) turns on the longstanding enmity between the Khevsurs, who are Christian, and the Kists, Muslims who originated from Chechnya. It is based on a late nineteenth-century epic by Georgian poet Vazha-Pshavela, lines of which are recited in voiceover. After killing a Kist named Mutsali (Geidar Palavandishvili) on an attack mission, the warrior Aluda (Tengiz Archvadze) is plagued by his conscience and tries to break the cycle of hatred between the two peoples. He rejects a tradition that dictates he cut the hand off the dead man and bring it back to his village as a trophy. Instead, he sacrifices a bull in honour of Mutsali and his bravery. This incurs the wrath of his community. Believing the Devil has corrupted him, they cast him out. Meanwhile, Zviadauri (Zurab Kapianidze) encounters a hunter, Jokola (Otar Megvinetukhutsesi), who invites him to his home — which happens to be in the village of the murdered Kist. Jokola, despite his best intentions, is unable to safeguard his guest against the will for vengeance of his community, who bind and drag him to the dead man’s grave.

The Plea (dir. Tengiz Abuladze, 1967)

Shot in stark black and white, the dramatic Caucasian mountain landscape of fortresses and steep, snowy inclines channels a medieval severity — Abuladze cited painters Bosch and Brueghel as inspirations — as, in cruel symmetry, both men’s transcendent, individual compassion is thwarted by the pack mentality and endless feuding of their respective people’s dogged adherence to old laws. Religious allegory is woven in, as the struggle between good and evil is dramatised in visions of a light-bathed woman in white, and a corpulent man in shadow who speaks of transient urges.

A volatile thunderstorm is brewing in the trilogy’s next installment, The Wishing Tree (1976). A fable-like, episodic portrait of life in a Georgian village just before the Russian Revolution, it is based on short stories by Giorgi Leonidze. The coming turbulent weather signals wider chaos on the horizon, as the possibility of political instability and bloodshed hangs in the air, even as the liberating prospect of washing away a stagnant present and renewing the world intoxicates idealists and dreamers. An arranged marriage throws the future into disarray for Marita (Lika Kavzharadze) after the man she loves, Gedya (Soso Jachvliani) is deemed too poor to be a good match by her family. Her wedding vows to another cannot keep the sweethearts apart, even at the risk of disgrace and punishment. A dying white horse in a field of scarlet red poppies and other striking images infuse the film with an almost animistic appreciation of the natural world as an environment that holistically mirrors and spiritually embodies the fates and moods of the villagers and their times. Famed actress Sofiko Chiaureli plays the extravagantly made-up Pupala, once revered as a beauty, whose reputation for tormenting suitors is a comic foil that hints at the heartbreak and social castigation to come for the star-crossed lovers.

The hearts and integrity of good people being sacrificed for the sake of control, in a world whose laws no longer make sense, is ultimately the tragedy that lies at the heart of Abuladze’s trilogy

The conflicts of the tragicomic Repentance (1984) also play out in the terrible chasm between what is the done thing to do, according to herd conformity and the dictates of rulers, and actions that accord with human integrity and love. The mayor of a small town, Varlam Aravidze (Avtandil Makharadze), has died, and he is buried with all the solemn rites and laudatory pomp that Soviet dignitaries were granted regardless of their crimes. But one citizen, baker Keti Barateli (Zeinab Botsvadze), is determined that such hypocrisy should not stand, and she repeatedly digs the corpse up under cover of night, denying the functionary a peaceful rest and the town a convenient forgetting of his atrocities. Keti’s outrage is personal: she carries the pain of the disappearance of her painter father in a crackdown on artists and dissent during Varlam’s rule. Her prank casts aside propagandistic idealism in favour of the blackly subversive and grotesque — a lens that recognises totalitarianism as an absurdist farce of hypocritical ostentation and patriarchal, irrational tyranny.

Aravidze’s moustachioed, bespectacled appearance and black militaristic garb (which conjure echoes of Stalin, Lavrenty Beria, Hitler, and Mussolini all at once) make him a composite symbol of the ultimate paranoid despot, in a phantasmagorical depiction not specific enough to fall irrevocably foul of the censors, but amounting, still, to a provocative critique of Stalinism, its harsh police state and crushing of the intelligentsia. The mayor may be dead, but his pernicious legacy lives on in subsequent generations, as his descendants must choose between covering up his crimes or breaking with the family narrative and repenting of them.

“Out of every three people, four are enemies,” Aravidze declares, in words that capture perfectly how rule by fear and suspicion can overwhelm a society and everyone in it, stamping out logic and any regard for facts. The hearts and integrity of good people being sacrificed for the sake of control, in a world whose laws no longer make sense, is ultimately the tragedy that lies at the heart of Abuladze’s whole trilogy.

Watch the full Abuladze trilogy on Klassiki now, and explore our collection of classic Georgian cinema here

Carmen Gray is a freelance journalist, critic and film programmer, who often writes about Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Caucasus. Born in New Zealand, she now lives in Berlin.