Since Otar Left
directed by Julie Bertuccelli
(Zeitgeist, 2003)

Every once in a while, I'm reminded that, in the hands of an insightful filmmaker and wonderful actors, an extraordinary movie can be made about the stories of ordinary people. And that, in the name of love, even the most "ordinary" of lives can be lived as a generous gift.

A few years ago, Julie Bertuccelli's first feature-length movie, Since Otar Left, was released to acclaim in Europe. It's a small movie, without a central star (and, essentially, without the physical presence of the film's namesake, Otar).

What it has is three spectacular actors. Leading the way is Esther Gorintin as grandmother Eka, who has weathered Stalinism, communism, the fall of the regime and capitalism in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. She shares her home in Tbilisi with her daughter, Marina (Nino Khomasuridze) and her granddaughter, Ada (Dinara Drukarova), who acts as mediator between the bickering Eka and Marina.

Their lives are a grind of trying to find food, dealing with constant power and water outages and the small, draining indignities of survival in a crumbling city.

Their comfort -- or, at least, Eka's comfort -- comes in the form of infrequent letters from Otar, the physician son from this Francophile family, who has emigrated from Tbilisi to Paris searching for construction work, the cash Otar hides in the letters and his infrequent phone calls.

But soon, Marina receives a call from France: Otar, working without legal papers, has died on the job. And so Marina and Ada must decide how to tell Eka her son is dead. Instead, they decide to say nothing.

"I can't hurt my mother," says Marina.

The three women settle into a routine of deception -- Ada writing letters supposedly from Otar, Eka waiting breathlessly for the next post.

Against their family drama, Bertuccelli places the vast throes of the region's political history -- from Eka's Stalinist era ("He was a great man," she insists), to Marina's coming of age a generation later ("He was a murderer,") to Ada at the cusp of something not necessarily better, but at least a new era ("We don't care about your Stalin").

What mothers are willing to do for daughters, what daughters feel they owe their mothers, the lies we tell to smooth over sorrow -- and how we become accustomed to deceiving ourselves -- all combine in the last half hour in a way that's almost unbearably tender.

It's all the more astonishing that Gorintin, who was 90 when the movie was made, only made her film debut at 85. It wasn't too late for her.

It is not, the movie seems to say, too late for the rest of us, either.

review by
Jen Kopf

31 May 2008

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