Essential Images: Secret Relations Revealed in Since Otar Left


This year’s Cannes Film Festival Closing Night film was The Tree, writer-director Julie Bertuccelli’s atmospheric drama about a grieving family in Australia. It offers a continuation of what Bertuccelli explored in her far superior and deeply moving 2003 narrative debut, Since Otar Left. Set in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Since Otar Left is a tale of deception triggered by a sudden death. Marina (Nino Khomassouridze) and daughter Ada (Dinara Droukarova) hide the loss of Marina’s brother Otar from matriarch Eka (Esther Gorintin), who has long favored her son despite not seeing him for some time. Marina and Ada keep Otar alive for Eka, forging his letters and continuing to send money in his name. Thus commences an air of well-intended dishonesty and mounting tension between three generations of women.


The film is set against a political backdrop, with the women sharing one poor apartment in Georgia’s capital of Tblisi; the flat’s faulty utilities reflect Georgia’s post-communist adversities. But Bertuccelli, a former assistant director for masters like Krzysztof Kieślowskiand Bertrand Tavernier, is far more interested in the intimacies of her story (co-written by Bernard Renucci). For her, power outages are more a collective barometer of the dynamic within the home, and they mark one of the first examples of how she uses form, lighting and, certainly, composition to beautifully convey the film’s mood and nuances. One of the great ironies of Since Otar Left is that, for a film about the perpetuation of blissful ignorance, it’s profoundly perceptive in terms of technique.

Perhaps the finest visuals arrive just after the news of Otar’s death, a key emotional peak of the film that informs everything that follows. Served the heavy blow in a chilly office, Marina and Ada exit and then descend an escalator in silence.

Wielded by Christophe Pollock, Bertuccelli’s camera descends with them, catching their distress on a sinking slope while the rest of the world shuffles by and carries on with life (as it is with grief). The next frame sees the pair standing on a train platform before a dark tunnel, one they’re about to traverse literally and figuratively. Their gazing in opposite directions – a visual Bertuccelli will employ multiple times – underscores their continually differing viewpoints.


As the shot extends, the tension builds up to the noise of an approaching train, and their obstinacy gives way to shared grief.


Shortly thereafter, when the Otar ruse is about to start (Ada writes the phony letters bearing her late uncle’s Paris address), Eka takes a weekend trek to the family’s old country home, where she picks produce and shows a fierce protection of Otar’s childhood bedroom. Upon departure, Eka closes a gate and glances back across the property. Clad in a plant-colored dress that matches the landscape, Eka is pictorially enmeshed in the memories of her past and her son, which she holds so tightly as parts of herself.


When Eka returns home, Bertuccelli uses the apartment’s architecture to frame the shifting family dynamic. Greeting her grandmother at the door, Ada, more prized by Eka than Marina, is seen from the next room through an archway, while Marina looks on, encased and segregated by a window in the wall.


But as Eka moves along to her bedroom, Ada, no longer an innocent, steps into the window space with her mother, her co-conspirators.


In the movie’s climax, Eka, persistent in seeing her son, initiates a trip to Paris to hunt him down. Separated from Ada and Marina, the 80-something woman (whom the late-blooming Gorintin played when she was nearing 90) hits the busy streets in pursuit, and Bertuccelli presents a dizzying world that Eka faces down in her quest for answers.


In Otar’s apartment building, she ascends an unforgiving spiral staircase:


Through Bertuccelli’s lens, Eka is dwarfed by her experience. It’s a visual character arc, which ultimately suggests that Eka is both whittled down and liberated by the truth.


Such a journey is one Bertuccelli proves highly adept at sharing, and Since Otar Left serves as an introduction of the director’s chosen themes. Like The Tree, it features an evocative aesthetic steeped in metaphor; it visually and thematically presents the daunting terrain that those caught in grief must traverse; and it examines the fanciful scenarios that folks will concoct to numb the sting of death.


R. Kurt Osenlund is a freelance journalist and film critic. He contributes to South Philly Review and ICON Magazine and reviews films on his blog


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