Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, like many other cities in republics of the former Soviet Union, has fallen on hard times. Amenities are non-existent, power and water are patchy at best and there are few prospects, especially for the young. Since Otar Left (Depuis Qu’Otar Est Parti) throws open a window on the lives of three generations of women who co-exist and struggle to survive in contemporary Georgia, where the haze of Soviet rule still hangs in the air.

Eka, (Esther Gorintin) the matriarch of the former bourgeois family, lives in a cramped, crumbling apartment with her daughter Marina (Nino Khomasuridze), a widow whose husband was killed in Afghanistan, and Ada (Dinara Drukarova), her precocious granddaughter who longs to escape the stifling dead-end that Tbilisi has become. Life is tough, tougher even than it was under Stalin, who is fondly remembered as a saviour by the eccentric Eka since, after all, Georgia was Stalin’s birthplace. Absent but still very much at the heart of the family is Otar, son, brother and uncle of the women. Otar, a doctor, has quit Tbilisi, choosing to do menial work for better money as an unregistered labourer in Paris. Otar is Eka’s son and favourite. She and the other women increasingly live their lives and pin their hopes on Otar and the letters and money he sends from Paris. Circumstances change but, just as under the former Soviets, it is easier to live a lie than face the truth.

Since Otar Left is Julie Bertucelli’s debut feature. She has previously made a documentary for television and was first assistant director on two of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s tricolour films, Blue (1993) and White (1994). Her father Jean-Louis Bertucelli is a veteran French television director. Bertucelli’s film is a stunning debut, winning the Critics Week prize at Cannes, a C?r for Best First Film and a FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) commendation at Venice. Her film, which she wrote in collaboration with Bernard Renucci and Roger Bohbot, is a funny, bittersweet look at life in a former Soviet republic where the West, in this case Paris, is a land of golden opportunity. Bertucelli, through the title of the film, acknowledges Georgia’s greatest living director, Otar Iosseliani, who is 70 and no longer lives in Georgia.

The direction of this well-written film is deceptively simple and Christophe Pollock’s cinematography depicts Tbilisi as a shabby shadow of a once great city contrasted nicely with a shabbier side of Paris rarely seen on the big screen. All the performances are outstanding, none more so than that of Polish former dental nurse turned actor, Esther Gorintin, who was 90 when the film was made. This is a film for lovers of French cinema.

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