The Plea

05/30/2010

Soviet Union / 1967 / Georgian

Directed by Tengiz Abuladze

With Tengiz Archvadze, Rusudan Kiknadze, Spartak Bagashvili

Still from 'The Plea'In The Plea, Georgian filmmaker Tengiz Abuladze uses stark cinematography, ranging from light and feathery grays to the almost blinding pitch-blacks of high contrast chiaroscuro, to offer up startling and haunting symbolism based on the ancient traditions of the region of Khevsureti. He situates these images in religious allegories concerning good and evil and how the two are rendered inextricable. With the looming mountains of the Caucasus as its background, the film draws its dialogue from the works of 19th Century poet Vaja-Pshavela, looking introspectively at received notions of justice, oppression, and social conformity. Abuladze uses elements of the country’s complicated cultural backdrop, its constant push and pull between Christian and Muslim communities, to decry religion and the crises of humanity that it can bring on. The lines from Vaja-Pshavela’s writing are primarily spoken in voice over, without the onscreen characters moving their lips, so that they are performing a sort of resonant and beautiful pantomime along to the text. Khevsureti is a place out of time, where the crusades may as well have never ended, and men still wore traditional chainmail even into the 20th Century.

Against that fortress-like topography, the director sets mock-allegorical scenes. A wild-eyed wayfarer on an ancient mountain road encounters God, in the form of a young blonde woman, lithe and oracular like Monica Vitti, and also Satan, an indelicate fat man who implores the traveler to take what he wants from life by force. Satan moves out from the shadows of an abandoned medieval house and clumsily attempts to woo God. He shows the traveler a hilltop town where Aluda, a famed warrior, sets out to attack the Muslims who have been terrorizing his countrymen.

Aluda emerges from his mission victorious, having murdered a Kist by the name of Mutsali. But he failed to bring back the man’s hand, as tradition dictates, and on top of that he feels guilt for having taken a life. His fellow villagers do not understand his behavior, and he feels ostracized, dead to the community. He envisions a severed hand floating in his soup. Even a scene of old women kneading dough for bread becomes funereal, their chanting transforming into a dirge. When Aluda decides to sacrifice a bull in honor of his fallen opponent, the others recoil and cast him out of the village.

Still from 'The Plea'Journeying through the countryside, Aluda encounters a hunter who invites him to his home village. As fate would have it, this is the Pankisi Gorge, land of the Kists, with its strangely leaning minarets towering over stone houses. The other people of the village recognize the Christian warrior, seemingly brought to them by the generosity of God, and there is no question that they must take their vengeance. The hunter, dismayed at their behavior, invokes Islam’s tenet of hospitality, trying to protect his guest. Caught up in the need for retribution, this attempt at law and order, at kindness, falls on deaf ears. At this point Aluda and his new friend have both been victimized by their own cultures, blasted and turned out for adhering to what they believe to be right.

Like fellow South-Caucasian Sergei Paradjanov, Abuladze looks back, to old literature and even older oral lore for inspiration. At the same time the two filmmakers made formally daring, progressive and modernist work. That’s more or less where the comparisons end. Both utilize archaic aesthetics in their radical redefinition of visual technique, a mingling of the iconoclastic with the traditional and ancient. They represent a type of powerfully vernacular cinema, rich with folksongs, regional dialects, and vivid ethnographic detail, all of it quite regionally-specific. Their break was with Soviet formalism, thus reviving a long-suppressed cultural imaginary that brings us closer to the past. Abuladze’s film has little of the dizzy fragmentation of those of his famous contemporary (or some of his own, later work, like 1977’s dotty The Wishing Tree), as the images unfold slowly, with a stateliness that recalls religious iconography, their power echoing from the snow-dusted mountains and back through an ancient and secretive history.

Still from 'The Plea'As the film closes, Abuladze leaves us with a series of arresting images; God and Satan are bound in matrimony, the funeral cortège seen earlier following the death of an influential patriarch having turned into a gaggle of well-wishers and hangers-on. Satan smirks while God looks down at the ground, shyly, silently. The grotesque wedding probably signifies religious hypocrisy, the good in human beings silenced and sequestered, the lord’s name invoked to justify deeds that may be the devil’s charge. God, still represented as a young woman, brought before the gallows. As her body falls, rays of sunlight pierce the scene, averting the gazes of the onlookers, gravediggers, and executioners. The devil disappears into the shadows. A radiance has emerged. Behind this final sacrifice a deep faith in humanity, one that supersedes sect and belief, refuses. In its wake the song of the heart rings out more purely and more truthfully than the clamor and outcry for its blood.

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