Since Otar Left

November 1st. 2009

Supported by Film London, the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley started a series of monthly events consisting of a matinee screening of a film featuring an older woman, followed by a panel talk and a discussion.

The first film shown in January 2009 was Fassbinder’s Ali, Fear Eats the Soul (1974). The session was very well attended. Unfortunately, the panel did not serve this great classic very well. Two out of the three were not familiar with the film or the director. As is usual in Q & A the audience were extremely articulate in expressing their opinions. But did they learn anything about the subject of older women in films in general or about this film in particular? I ask this because the day was advertised as a Study Day.

I could not attend the September showing of Sokurov’s Aleksandra (2007). This film was billed in a very well produced flyer as ‘Older women and younger generations’. I will comment on this inaccurate and misrepresenting title at a later date.

On October 28th the audience was small. Only one member (U3A) of the panel turned up. The film shown was Bertucelli’s Since Otar Left. The flyer describes this film as ‘Women in a changing society’.

I wonder to what degree the expectations raised by such a simplistic and misguiding categorisation spoil the cinematic experience. During the discussion the contributions of the audience concentrated mainly on the relationship between Paris and Georgia, the two locations, the use of the French language in Russia and the history of USSR and Georgia, the role of Paris as a construct, the difference between East and West. This left little time to explore the depth and complexity of this very special film directed by a woman.

The narrative depends on the presence of an absent male in the household composed of a 90 years old woman Eka, her daughter Marina and her granddaughter Ada. Otar the son, brother and uncle has gone to Paris to find work. In the first part of the film Otar writes and phones home. In the second part Marina and Ada conspire to hide his death from Eka.

This family drama’s main characteristic is its lack of cinematic melodramatic features. There are no scenes of shouting and storming out, no hysterical explosions, no violent outbursts. Instead we have the love and tensions, the closeness but also the differences between the three characters and the effect of the death of the absent male on their lives. The mise-en-scene reflects in a masterful way the contradictions. There are nearly as many night scenes as there are day scenes. The lighting goes from the cold daylight to the warm hues of candlelight. The colours also express these changes in mood. The characterisation conveyed by superb subtle acting and an incisive script, highlights intergenerational relationships in all their complexity.

The old woman in this film is part of an ensemble and cannot be separated from the others. The different life trajectories of the three women, their different points of view, the past present and future, the quality of love and commitment, of caring, of dependance and autonomy, memory and emotions, secrets and protection of the loved ones  – so  many themes that could have been explored beyond the geo-political background that reviewers have tended to write about.

Once more I feel that an important film about women’s lives is neglected and in danger of being forgotten. Julie Bertucelli won the Cannes Festival Critics Week Grand Prize (2003), Best First Work Cesar (2004) and another 11 wins and 5 nominations for her film. Yet only 338,119 people saw it in 27 European countries. 8296 people saw it on the big screen in the UK as opposed to 183 978 in France. As older women we can give it the attention it deserves.

About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
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