Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Apr 25, 2011 12:02 pm 
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Iosseliani ironizes his own professional history

The Georgian-born auteur, resident in France for 30 years, now in his late seventies, had his directorial extravagances and charm lovingly chronicled in Julie Bertucelli's 2007 documentary Otar Iosseliani, the Whistling Blackbird (SFIFF 2007). I also briefly reviewed Iosseliani's 2006 film, Gardens in Autumn. It was shown both at the 2006 NYFF and the 2007 SFIFF.

Iosseliani's new film Chantrapas, though not explicitly autobiographical, is about a Georgian-born director who moves to France; and it is very much in the director's signature style. As Iosseliani has pointed out elsewhere, he himself escaped the worst aspects of Soviet censorship (even though he left to find greater artistic freedom). The director's more ironically drawn stand-in protagonist Niko (Dato Tarielachvili) is never so successful, and encounters serious obstacles even in France.

At the very outset Niko shows a scene from a new film to a former friend, Barbara (Tamuna Karumidze), who's become a government censor. A clip from an old short by Iosseliani himself, it metaphorically shows modern industry crushing all things beautiful in nature. Barbara says lose the film. He says no. He maintains this stubborn stance from then on, perhaps explaining the Russian slang title, which means "good-for-nothing." That would be what the Soviet authorities think of him. They're happy, eventually, to arrange for Niko's train trip to France, and nobody expects him to return.

It's always fun watching, especially this time in the Soviet sections, the director's typically elaborate, rambling staging of ensemble sequences, as he depicts Niko directing scenes from films that represent his youth while crew members wander in and out removing props as one scene or another is completed. At home Niko lives in a chaotic setting with his feisty grandfather (Givi Sarchimelidze) and grandmother (Nino Tchkheidze). Niko wins some victories with the bureaucrats when crew members support him, but he's the loser overall.

Niko arrives on the train, carrying a birdcage and a viola case, in a Paris where the streets seem to swarm with a multiculturalism dominated by hippies and Africans. He gets a producer (Pierre Etaix), but it seems that in some ways the old-fashioned world depicted in the earlier scenes was better, and Niko still seems to live in a quaint world, sending his grandparents messages via carrier pigeon and living in a rickety garret without mod cons.

Iosselliani shows his usual fluency and ease throughout, though the seeming casualness for some viewers may seem also to reflect a lack of urgency or momentum. The mise-en-scene and costumes, especially in the earlier Georgian sequences, are a pleasure to contemplate. For me this director is more to appreciate than to love. I seem to tend to remember certain sequences, without having much sense of the point of the whole. But if you like auteurs, here you've got one.

The 122 min. film, typically for the director, seems to know no restraints of time (Bertucelli chronicled his strong penchant for cost overruns). It was first shown at Cannes May 18, 2010, with a September 22, 2010 French theatrical release and other festival showings to follow, including at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it was screened for this review, April 2011. French critical response was generally favorable, but Cahiers du Cinéma called this "an innocuous postcript" to a body of work already "highly recommended" and Excessif described the film as "charming but musty." "Charm" is a word frequently used, but some feel it more than others.

Chantrapas is Giorgia's entry for the 84th Academy Awards Best Foreign Award.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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