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Since Otar Left

You don’t get too many truly trilingual films these days, especially when one of the languages is this ancient tongue.  And although there is oftentimes a large amount of Russian in Georgian films, having a few characters proficient in French as well is a bit of an oddity.  A Georgian–speaking friend of mine who was less than enamored with this film said there was not enough Georgian (his main impetus for buying a ticket) and way too much French (his personal bugbear), and he’s probably right.  Yet this film, with a plot so simple it could be unraveled in one short scene, is precisely about too much French and not enough Georgian in a family where a little more balance might have proven felicitous.

As we start our film, Otar, a Georgian physician in his 40s, has now been in Paris for two years not utilizing his education’s credentials. Instead, he has been relegated for legal reasons to visaless work on a construction site.  This remarkable underachievement does nothing to lessen the adoration of his mother Eka (Esther Gorintin).  For Eka, the archetypical motherly quip “he can do no wrong” might as well be a wall–sized banner.  We know, as do Eka’s daughter Marina (Nino Khomasuridze) and Marina’s daughter Ada (Dinara Drukarova), that Otar is the type of person who lies to his parents because he suspects that he will never meet their expectations.  Eka acknowledges as much towards the end of the film.  But she also seems to imply that when you are the perfect son in image (as he is to her), what you actually make of your life is not as important as how proud your parents are of you.

And what has Otar been doing in France of all places?  Well, for Eka, who still lives in Tbilisi with Marina and Ada, France is all places.  It is the idealized homeland, the nostalgia–soaked meadow on the other side of a mountain that keeps Eka’s mind in a happy dream.  Her presumably French father had hundreds of French books imported and the family has always spoken French, so Otar is, in a sense, returning to the homeland which his ancestors revered.  On a regular basis, Otar writes to the three women about his life in Paris.  He also occasionally calls, and although Eka can barely hear him on the invariably bad connection, she continues to delude herself about the feasibility of the whole endeavor.  She is likened to the grandmother in this magnificent novel, probably the greatest in French literature (indeed, Ada reads her a passage from Combray), who had a few delusions of her own, including the insistence that she never actually slept.   Then one day Marina picks up the phone and gets Niko, Otar’s Georgian chum in Paris.  It appears that Otar has met with a rather serious accident on the construction site.  She and Ada then proceed a couple of days later to a government office to learn that he is, in fact, no longer among the living.  “If she knows he’s dead,” thinks Marina but doesn’t quite say it, “she’ll make him into a saint.”  Yes, a poorly timed display of sibling rivalry.  Marina was never Otar for Eka, as in life so in death.  Ada will call her on this insecurity later in the film, but it is clear that Eka cannot be informed about his demise.  So Ada, whose French is spotless, proceeds to forge letters from France and continue Otar’s life for him (a conceit also used in this film, released thirty years earlier).  Thus, apart from the situational shenanigans that such a scheme induces, the plot attains completion by about the film’s twenty–third minute.

Here we are reminded of two narrative rules, neither of which hampers our enjoyment of the film.  1) Gift of the Magi rule: if an impoverished character has one item he treasures, he will sell it by the end of the story to realize his dream or the dream of someone he loves.  2) Nostalgic distance rule: if you keep talking about a place as if it were paradise and you continue to complain about your current station, you will have a sobering visit towards the end of the story to destroy, in the softest way possible, your delusions.  I will not say whether these rules are strictly obeyed, but they are, in any case, predictable.  A lot of time in the movie is spent in silence.  Initially, it is not the productive silence of artistic films that understand the unique power of the cinematic medium and that certain things cannot be said.  It is the silence of wanting to perpetrate a lie, of not wanting the truth or an ironic reflection thereof to slip out in speech, as happens to Marina when talking about her deceased husband.  At the end of the movie, however, this is not the case.  The silence is Eka’s exploration of what she thinks is Otar’s space and what she imagines may be France.  This is especially evident when she stares a while at Otar's red door and walks around what she thinks is still his neighborhood, tracing his footsteps as if doing his commute.

There's another rule involving big decisions that comes into play, and we know that most films require that their characters either undergo some fundamental metamorphosis or remain so steadfast in their ways that they become symbols for certain traits.  We also know exactly to which character this rule will likely apply, but whether or not such a move occurs I cannot, for the sake of propriety, reveal.  That it takes a Frenchman of North African stock to call Otar a toubib, French slang for a doctor (actually a calque of the Arabic word), ironically emphasizes Otar’s foreignness in a country where he was supposed to be at home.  But at least Otar was known as a doctor although he did not practice medicine.  And for some mothers, that is good enough.

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