Since Otar left for Paris, his mother, sister and niece have been living together in their apartment in Tblisi, a rundown city in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Otar is the family’s only male child, a medical student reduced to working at odd jobs to get by. His mother, Eka, is in her late 80s and lives for the letters and phone calls from her son, while his sister, fortysomething Marina, is less concerned, though bothered by the way her mother dotes over him. And his niece, Marina’s teenage daughter, Ada, is too busy trying to find a way to assert her independence to worry much about her departed uncle.
This dynamic changes radically when Marina and Ada learn that Otar has died in a construction accident. They decide that the news must be kept from the ailing Eka. It’s a decision that arises from a feeling that’s partly protectiveness toward the family matriarch and partly a fear of anything that will upset the delicate balance of their lives. It’s also a secret that’s impossible to keep for very long, and the strategies the two come up with to maintain it could have been played for a darkly comic effect — but the film is more interested in the interrelation of three generations of women living under one roof, depicted in a realistic and low-key manner.
Based on a true story (actually it’s easy to imagine that this sort of thing has happened more than once), Otar is the feature debut of Julie Bertuccelli, a French documentary filmmaker who has been an assistant director to Bertrand Travernier and Krzystof Kieslowski, and it’s that uniquely European entity, a film whose effectiveness relies largely on the performance of (how to put this?) an extremely old person. In this case it’s Esther Gorintin who gives the star performance, and her Eka is a nicely layered creation. You can imagine that she was a domineering figure when she was younger; she still has a feistiness that persists in her infirmity, but there’s also a gentler side which comes out in her feelings about Otar, as well as an acquired wisdom that plays a part in the film’s moving and not altogether predictable climax. Otar, despite its subject matter, never drifts into sentimentality and much of the credit goes to Gorintin and her knack for keeping it real.
In French, Georgian and Russian with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) Friday and Saturday, May 14-15, at 7 and 9:30 p.m.; and on Sunday, May 16, at 4 and 7 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].