The Unorthodox Poetry of Indolence: Remembering Otar Iosseliani

The Georgian director and his liberating, humanist films questioned the status quo, imagining a fantastic world devoid of many divisions.
Celluloid Liberation Front

Gardens in Autumn (Otar Iosseliani, 2006).

“Life receives its radiance only from inactivity.”

—Byung-Chul Han

“They deem me mad because I will not sell my days for gold; and I deem them mad because they think my days have a price.”

—Khalil Gibran

Otar Iosseliani, who died in December, was artistically incompatible with the institutional strictures of the film industry in both the Soviet Union, where he was born, and France, where he subsequently made most of his feature films. Iosseliani inhabited exile more like a fairy tale than a sentence. His ability to transfigure reality and find the incredible in the everyday populates his films with a whimsical humanity we often fail to notice. Though adhering on the surface to the visual precepts of cinematic realism, his films fantastically exceed it with a melancholic comedy that is observed rather than staged. Now that he is no more, our world will be an even lonelier place. The profound levity of his cinema was a therapeutic antidote to the tyrannical bitterness of pedantry. Unlike those dissidents who feed the superiority complex of Western Europeans by publicly praising the freedom allegedly enjoyed under liberal democracy, the Georgian director pointed at its sanctimony with irony: “In the Soviet Union we have censorship, here you have the box office,” he once noted. Tellingly, he always refused political asylum after he moved from Soviet Georgia to France in 1982. For Iosseliani, liberty is not something governments grant you but something that must be lived on your own, autonomous terms.

L’Atalante (1934), released the year Iosseliani was born, was the film that convinced him to become a filmmaker, and it is not by coincidence that the anarchic cinema of Jean Vigo served as inspiration. While unhappily attending VGIK, Iosseliani was taken to the Gosfilmfond archives and shown Vigo’s film by Lev Felonov, an editor (he edited Larisa Shepitko's feature debut, Heat) working at the Soviet film school who sensed the student’s dissatisfaction with the curriculum. The film made him realize that the unruly poetry of joy was something that could not only be lived, but also filmed. Subsequently, Iosseliani’s filmography poked fun at the sophistry of power and its pomposity, and serves as an ode to life freed from dogma and self-importance. His movies are composed in equal parts of the mischievous candor of childhood and the sly wisdom of old age. Most crucially, in a (film) world instrumentally divided into nations, Iosseliani imagined a cinema devoid of borders, universal in its particularism. Whether filmed in Georgia, France, or anywhere else, his films do not seem to fit into any school, wave, or national tradition.

After unceremoniously graduating from film school, Iosseliani worked for a few weeks in a foundry. The short film that followed this experience already bore the matrix of his cinema: the inhuman tedium of work is perfectly rendered in Tudzhi/Čugun (1964), a film that rebukes the liturgical glorification of the Soviet worker. While constructivism had dynamically transfigured labor into an act of liberation, socialist realism and reality hardly differed from capitalist exploitation. The initial promise of a society freed from exploitation failed to materialize and alienated labor ruled on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The infernal humming of the foundry frames the daily routine of the workers whose only occasions for solace are the lunch break and the end of the working day, when the soundtrack underlines the relief of inactivity with a violin. These are the few moments of idle bliss when a frivolous light brightens a film otherwise burdened by a laboring monotony. Such scenes of conviviality are central to Iosseliani’s poetic universe, and punctuate virtually all of his films. Rest in his cinema is not peripheral; on the contrary, it is the fulcrum of human possibility.

In Gardens in Autumn (2006), rest is the precondition to come back to life. The film tells the story of a government minister who has to reinvent his life without the privileges of power after he loses his job. Outside the ritualized protocols of institutional politics, the man will be able to encounter the random pleasures of everyday life again, like regularly visiting his mother (played by Michel Piccoli in one of his greatest roles) and hanging out with friends and neighbors. Drinking and singing around the dinner table is a fitting poetic trademark of Iosseliani, and is the one image that recurs in his films. 

His predilection for liberated time is something that can be savored in the very narratives of his films. Though clearly driven by stories, they remain resolutely anti-climactic because the Georgian director, by his own admission, avoids the abuse of dramaturgy. His films contain none of the manipulative narrative twists so often used to melodramatically blackmail audiences. “I try not to have climaxes, or have them happening outside the frame,” he once remarked. Exemplary in this regard is Monday Morning (2002), in which a factory worker leaves his family with the money inherited from his dying father to go on a trip to Venice. What in another film would have assumed seismic proportions, a psychodrama capable of altering the narrative tone and arc, in Iosseliani’s film is uneventfully described as a passage, one of the many life is made of. His journey is presented as naturally as the sudden appearance out of nowhere of a crocodile at the family’s home. The imperturbable composure of the main character is not indifference. Rather, it’s a romantic indolence that makes skipping work and leaving your family behind not a selfish deed, but a gesture of unsparing (self-)care. His eventual return home, after having dwelled in the timeless beauty of Venice and its fantastical inhabitants, is framed from the point of view of his kids paragliding over the valley where they live. The melodramatic density that such a scene would normally imply is sublimated into a weightless movement of the heart by Iosseliani. “Since the characters I imagine are all driven by secret passions,” he noted, “I have to follow their movements.” And that is precisely the feeling one has when watching his films: as if the action is guiding the director and not vice versa. Characters in his films weave the narrative through their movements, dispersing in apparently random directions that always exceed the boundaries of cinematic realism.

To follow Iosseliani’s characters is to expansively question the way things normally are. When a young couple moves from a poorer neighborhood into a new apartment in Aprili (1961), his graduation film, their newly acquired comforts and possessions will get in the way of their relationship and take it to a breaking point. In this irreverent satire of the relative well-being enjoyed by Soviet citizens under the Khrushchev Thaw, Iosseliani declares his anti-materialist ethos, his physiological incompatibility with the diktats of socialism (the film, unsurprisingly, did not go down well with the school’s authorities). His world of naturalistic fantasy is devoid of social or economic divisions. The son of a wealthy family in Farewell, Home Sweet Home (1999) works as a dishwasher, and the homeless and the noble, the priest and the terrorist in Iosseliani’s films are given the same degree of respectability. They all inhabit a cinematographic space of fraternal horizontality. The destitute aristocracy of his cinema is unprejudiced, always open and curious towards that which lies beyond convention. That his work, outside his native Georgia and France, was somewhat relegated to the margins speaks to Iosseliani’s elegant anachronism. He had a carefree refusal to be present at the right time in the right place, like the protagonist of Once Upon a Time There Was a Singing Blackbird (1970), a young percussionist who shows up for his orchestra performance at the last minute. The cinema of Otar Iosseliani quietly flourished in the sarcastic distance between the neuroses of consumer modernity and the divine stasis of indolence, guarding the beauty life casually offers to those slow enough to notice.

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