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Friday, November 12, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Tom Keogh
Hope is both virtue and burden in "Since Otar Left ... ," set in a startlingly decayed neighborhood in the former Soviet republic of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi.
Three generations of Georgian women sharing a cramped apartment doddering, 90-year-old Eka (Esther Gorintin); her weary, middle-age daughter Marina (Nino Khomassouridze); and the latter's restless, cusp-of-adulthood child Ada (Dinara Droukarova) are exhausted by daily interruptions of ordinary services such as running water and electricity.
Marina, struggling to make ends meet in a rubble-strewn flea market, keeps selling off family tchotchkes while Eka unhelpfully refuses to part with her late husband's valuable French books and rural home. Ada, a distracted student bored by idle, scheming boys at school, takes a promising job only to be exploited by her boss. Locked in widespread social atrophy (even postal workers and doctors view the public as a contemptible distraction), Eka's family finds waiting for progress fruitless and demoralizing.
On the other hand, patience rewards Eka. Her off-screen son, Otar, a physician with few prospects, has found work as a laborer in Paris. He dutifully writes and calls, sends cash and micromanages some of Eka's affairs, much to Marina's annoyance. He buoys Eka's faith in a world that will outlast her, and when he suddenly dies under murky circumstances (Georgian officials dismiss the family's need to know), Marina and Ada conspire to keep Eka from learning the shattering news.
For a while, Ada writes letters to Eka in Otar's hand, but the deception amplifies her and Marina's stifling hopelessness. Meanwhile, Eka's maternal intuition tells her something is wrong. Something has to give, and, in director Julie Bertuccelli's rigorous and inspired storytelling, despair movingly yields to the heart's capacity to regenerate itself, especially when all seems lost.
Bertuccelli, a busy documentarian, tackles "Since Otar Left ... ," her first fiction feature, with the kind of ambitious imagination that makes one marvel at a natural filmmaker's unexpected and original choices.
Otar, the story's pivotal figure, proves, for the audience, a ghost in life but alive in memory. (We don't see a photo of him or learn personal details until quite late in the film.) The most telling, intimate moments are magnificently counterintuitive: a scene of shared grief juxtaposed against a speeding train; an impromptu, community dance shot in soulful close-ups.
Adding to the film's perpetual discovery is the nuanced performance of Gorintin (who made her 1999 film debut at 85). Her limpid, compassionate eyes speak of a lifetime of love and loss.
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