Director: Tengiz Abuladze
Production: Gruziafilm; Georgian language; color, 35 mm; running time: 151 minutes. Released November 1986. Filmed in 1984 on location in Georgia, USSR.
Producer: Gruziafilm Studio; screenplay: Nana Djanelidze, Tengiz Abuladze, Rezo Kveselava; photography: Mikhail Agranovich; art director: Georgii Mikeladze; music coordinator: Nana Djanelidze.
Cast: Avtandil Makharadze (Varlam Aravidze and Abel Aravidze); Zeinab Botsvadze (Keti Barateli); Ia Ninidze (Guliko Aravidze); Merab Ninidze (Tornike Aravidze); Ketevan Abuladze (Nino Barateli); Edisher Giorgiobani (Sandro Barateli); Kakhi Kavsadze (Mikhail Korisheli); Nino Zakariadze (Elena Korisheli); Nato Otzhivaga (Keti as a child); Dato Kemkhadze (Abel as a child); Veriko Andzhaparidze (old woman).
Awards: Cannes Special Jury Prize, 1987; Lenin Prize, 1988.
Bozhovich, Viktor, editor, Pokaianie [Repentance], Moscow, 1988.
Woll, Josephine, and Denise J. Youngblood, Repentance: A Companion Guide, London, 2000.
Batchan, Alexander, "Mad Russian," in Film Comment (New York), May-June 1987.
Maslin, Janet, "Repentance: A Satire from Soviet [sic]," in The New York Times, 4 December 1987.
Woll, Josephine, "Soviet Cinema: A Day of Repentance," in Dissent, Spring 1988.
Hinson, Hal, "Repentance," in The Washington Post, 14 July 1988.
Rosenberg, Karen, "The Movies in the Soviet Union," in The Nation, 21 November 1988.
Christensen, Peter G., "Tengiz Abuladze's Repentance: Despair in the Age of Perestroika," in Soviet and East European Drama, Theatre, and Film, December 1988.
Youngblood, Denise J., "Repentance," in American Historical Review, October 1990.
Christensen, Julie, "Tengiz Abuladze's Repentance and the Georgian Nationalist Cause," in Slavic Review, Spring 1991.
Youngblood, Denise J. "Repentance: Stalinist Terror and the Realism of Surrealism," in Robert Rosenstone, editor, Revisioning History: Film and the Construction of a New Past, Princeton, New Jersey, 1995.
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For most Soviet intellectuals, the heady early years of the Gorbachev era are symbolized by a novel, Children of the Arbat (Deti arbata, by Anatolii Rybakov) and a film, Repentance, better known in the USSR by its Russian title, Pokaianie, than by its native language title, Monanieba. Made by one of Georgia's best known directors, Tengiz Abuladze (1924–1994), Repentance was the third film in the Georgian historical trilogy Abuladze began in 1968 with The Prayer (Vedreba [Georgian]/Molba [Russian]). The Prayer was followed in 1977 by The Tree of Desire (Natvris xe/Drevo zhelanie).
Because of Repentance's politically sensitive subject—the rise of Varlam Aravidze, whose surname means "every man" or "no man" in Georgian, to a position of power and terror in the 1930s—the film was bound to stir controversy. Abuladze sought to circumvent Soviet censorship by making the film for Georgian television, which had three-hour time slots for national productions that Gostelradio, the state television and radio commission, usually did not scrutinize too closely. Despite the protection afforded by Abuladze's powerful patron Eduard Shevardnadze, then Georgia's Communist Party secretary and now president of the independent Georgian republic, it took two years to complete the picture (1982–84). And it could not be released until after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and launched glasnost. In May 1986, the Soviet Union of Cinematographers purged itself of its most conservative members and elected a reformer, the respected director Elem Klimov, as first secretary. Two days after his election, Klimov announced a commission to review and release previously "shelved" films. In November 1986, Repentance received its first quasi-public screening at the Dom Kino (House of Cinema), the union's headquarters. By the beginning of 1987, the film was in general distribution in the USSR and quickly exported to the West to the film festival circuit.
Repentance is an ambitious film that makes no concessions to the audience, whether Soviet or Western. Long and difficult, the film's complex, plot-within-a-plot-within-a-plot structure and abstract style, which combines flamboyant surrealism with often tendentious symbolism, requires a level of audience dedication that few contemporary directors are audacious enough to demand. Indeed, all reports from Soviet screenings indicate that while the theaters were invariably packed when the film began, they never were when the film ended.
Repentance is a landmark historical film, a challenging "revisioning" of the Stalin Terror and a psychological exploration of the mentality of the authoritarian state. The narrative heart of the movie lies in its protracted flashback, but it takes Abuladze some time to get there. The story does not so much unfold as deconstruct, like breaking down a matreshka, the Russian wooden nested doll. Western critics, unaccustomed to the narrative style of Georgian folklore, generally found the film's plot extremely difficult to follow.
Repentance begins in an apartment kitchen, with a woman putting the finishing touches on an elaborately decorated wedding cake. Her male companion is reading a newspaper obituary about the death of the "great man" Varlam Aravidze. Although the viewer does not realize it until later, this brief scene marks the end of the first part of the first framing story.
The second framing story opens at Varlam's funeral. The event is obviously as much a political ritual as a personal acknowledgment of the deceased. Expressions of grief are highly stylized, even from the dead man's immediate survivors, his son Abel, Abel's wife Guliko, and the couple's teenaged son Tornike. That night, a horrified Guliko discovers that Varlam's corpse has been unearthed from its grave; he stands propped against a tree in their garden. Varlam's corpse is reburied and unburied two more times, prompting increasingly frenzied (and comical) activity from both the police and the Aravidze family. Finally, after a night on vigil at the cemetery, the grave robber is captured. To everyone's surprise, it is Keti Barateli, the middleaged baker from the opening scene.
At her trial, Keti refuses to cooperate with the proceedings. Instead, she defiantly announces that as long as she lives, "Varlam will not rest. The sentence is final." She then launches into her story: "Who was Varlam Aravidze? I was eight years old when he became mayor of this city. . . "
As we quickly learn in Keti's flashback, she was the daughter of Sandro Barateli, a well-known artist of ancient and aristocratic lineage. Her mother was the beautiful, madonna-like Nino, named after the patron saint of Georgian Christianity. The traditionalist Sandro quickly comes into conflict with the town's "progressive" new mayor Varlam Aravidze over the fate of its historic church. By arguing for the preservation of the church as a monument to culture, Sandro has immediately signified himself as one who will side with faith and emotion over reason and progress. Sandro's and Varlam's conflict over values builds, culminating in the mayor's unannounced nocturnal visit to the Barateli apartment, accompanied by his young son Abel and his two henchmen Doksopoulo and Riktofelov. Varlam and Sandro discuss Sandro's art; Varlam sings Italian arias and recites Shakespeare; Varlam admires the lovely Nino. Meanwhile, the children Abel and Keti discuss heaven, and Keti assures Abel that is where his dead mother is. Shortly after the unwelcome guests leave the Baratelis', Varlam returns, to give Nino the crucifix that young Abel has taken. While Nino prophetically dreams of her family's doom, Sandro pensively plays the piano. The doorbell rings. Doksopoulo and Riktofelov have returned, clad in medieval armor, to arrest him.
The roundup has begun. Next to be arrested is Mikhail Korisheli, Sandro's longtime friend. Although he is the local Party secretary, Mikhail is nonetheless powerless to defend Sandro from tyranny, nor indeed can Mikhail ultimately save himself. In several heartbreaking scenes, we see the swift deterioration of Nino's and Keti's lives as relatives of an "enemy of the people," culminating in Nino's pitiful attempt to offer herself to Varlam in exchange for her husband. In the meantime, Mikhail Korisheli, now deranged from torture, tries to persuade Sandro to confess: "We must sign everything and reduce it all to complete absurdity. . . . We'll sign a thousand stupid statements." Sandro is executed (crucified) at the same moment that the medieval church is blown-up to make way for "progress." Nino's arrest quickly follows.
We return now to the second part of the second flashback, as the adult Keti says to the shocked court, "And that was the end of Nino Barateli." Those present erupt; "She's insane!" they shout. The only person who believes Keti's tale is Varlam's grandson Tornike, who receives only evasive answers when he questions his father Abel: "Those were complicated times. . . It's difficult to explain now. . . The situation was different then." Despite Abel's fervent desire not to remember (which is different from "forgetting"), he is clearly troubled. So it is left to his hardbitten wife Guliko to manage the family affairs. She decides it would be best to have Keti declared insane and committed to an asylum. As Guliko schemes, it is her own husband's sanity that is in doubt. Hamlet-like, Abel converses with his father's ghost.
The next day, as the trial continues, Guliko triumphs. But her victory over truth and memory is short-lived. As Guliko and the Aravidze clique celebrate, young Tornike takes the burden of his family's guilt and atonement on himself. He commits suicide with a rifle that was a gift from his beloved grandfather. Afterward, the grief-stricken Abel himself digs up Varlam's corpse and throws it off a cliff to the ravens. A satisfying ending: Abel at last understands that the past cannot be buried.
Except that this is not the end. In his most maddening challenge to the spectators, who have after all patiently watched to this point, Abuladze now returns to the opening scene of Keti in her kitchen, with the man reading the newspaper. Was all this no more than her revenge fantasy? An elderly woman taps at the window to ask Keti if this street leads to a church. Keti responds sadly, "This is Varlam Street. It will not take you to a church." The old woman retorts, "Then what's the use of it? What good is a road if it does not lead to a church?" Shaking her head in dismay, she walks haltingly away.
Obviously it is impossible to do more than scratch the surface of such a rich and complicated film in a brief synopsis, even in terms of explicating its content, not to mention its form. Repentance is a political allegory about the rise of authoritarian culture and its persistence over generations that spoke directly to the Soviet people in the final years of the experiment that was the USSR. Despite its surrealism (the lunatic dialogue, the medieval knights and inquisitorial courts, the reveries and fantasy)—indeed because of it—Repentance also succeeds as a serious work of history on film. How better to represent an evil that is so abstract that to make it "realistic" is to trivialize it? Like its predecessors in Abuladze's trilogy, Repentance also seeks to celebrate, for better and ill, the storied culture of Georgia's ancient civilization—and rescue it from 150 years of Russian and Soviet subjugation.
Repentance, which turned out to be Abuladze's final film (like many other Soviet filmmakers, he turned to politics), is his undisputed masterpiece. The movie was quickly acknowledged as a major artistic achievement in the European and American press at the time of its release, for its political audacity, stunning cinematography, and a tour-de-force performance by the well-known Georgian theater actor Avtandil Makharadze in the dual roles of Varlam and Abel Aravidze. Indulgent nods were given to its overwrought symbolism, especially the Christian motifs which Soviet spectators also found incomprehensible, as well as to challenges presented by its unfamiliar structure.
In the USSR, the reactions were more complicated, and of course, more personal, since Repentance was about their lives, not somebody's else's troubled past. Its merits as a work of art aside, Repentance launched a painful national debate about history and memory, collective guilt and individual responsibility. Few films can claim to have had such sweeping social influence.
—Denise J. Youngblood