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 his native country. 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 rich cultural backdrop, its fortress-like topography historically providing strongholds for Christian and Muslim communities, to in fact 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.

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 Satan, a slovenly 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 kill the Muslims who have been terrorizing his Christian countrymen.

Aluda emerges from his mission victorious, having murdered the man named Mutsali from the Kistin community. But he failed to bring back the man’s hand, as the tradition dictated, and 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 land of the Kistins, with strange and 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 both Aluda and his Kistin friend have been victimized by their own cultures, blasted and turned out for adhering to what they believe to be right.

The Plea bares a strong resemblance to much of fellow Georgian filmmaker Sergei Paradjanov’s work. The films of both men are undeniably backward-looking, drawing from literary sources and oral legends, while at the same time being formally quite strange, even groundbreaking. They utilize archaic aesthetics in their radical redefinition of visual technique, a mingling of the non-formal with the traditional and ancient. They also represent a type of powerfully vernacular cinema, rich with folksongs, regional dialects, and an almost ethnographic level of detail, quite particular to their places of origin and spanning centuries of culture, mining collective consciousnesses – this done during  a period when much of Soviet cinema was trying to show the plurality and diversity of a large nation nonetheless united by ideology.

The major difference between Paradjanov and Abuladze is that the former worked within the context of a wider Soviet film industry, having trained with Dovzhenko, and was hounded and oppressed by the authorities for much of his later career, while the latter, it would seem, remained little-known outside of Georgia. His films have little of the dizzy fragmentation of those of his famous contemporary, 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 shrouded 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 now a gaggle of well-wishers and hangers-on. Satan smirks while God looks down at the ground, shyly, silently. The grotesque wedding signifies, undeniably, religious hypocrisy, the good in human beings silenced, and the lord’s name invoked in order to justify deeds that may be the devil’s charge. Another picture is of 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. When an attempt is made to crush the essential goodness of people, what is left in its wake is a powerful radiance, one that all will recognize but that none can see, brought on in a final sacrifice for a deep faith in humanity that supersedes belief. The song of the heart rings out more purely and more truthfully than the clamor and outcry for its blood.

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