Stress-cracked mother-daughter symbiosis gets a thorough microscoping in first-timer Julie Bertuccelli’s Since Otar Left . . . , a French-Georgian indie that exists in a purposefully man-scarce mini-universe. The guys are either dead or expatriated; the remaining triple-gen family thread is hunkered down in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, amid decaying apartment buildings and flea-market capitalism. Eka (Esther Gorintin), a lovely 90-year-old mule of a matriarch, refuses to surrender her self-determination or clear thinking, to the ongoing dismay of her middle-aged daughter Marina (Nino Khomassouridze). The sultry and intemperate Marina, for her part, has a man—a stalwart but ineffectual boyfriend/junk-stand partner—a fact that purchases her little respect from either Eka or her own daughter Ada (Dinara Droukarova), a level and alert student barely distracted by boys.
Three polished coins in a stagnant, post-Soviet fountain, these women are far from third-world peasants: Proud Francophile cosmopolitans who speak French to each other in anticipation of emigrating west, their world more or less revolves around Eka’s beloved absent son Otar, whose immigrant subsistence in Paris reaches them by way of postcards and late-night phone calls. Of course, Bertuccelli is wholly concerned with how much the women matter to each other—few recent films have so concisely and empathically limned the tensile fortitude of family in the new landscape of global displacement.
Bertuccelli, an ex-assistant director to Iosseliani, Kieslowski, and Tavernier, never hurries her characters into emotional corners, and even the most minor individuals have extra dimensions, including a few we never get to see clearly. The plot, starting with a sympathetic deception but extrapolated outward to include a genuine trip to the City of Lights, is completely dependent upon the surprises loved ones bring about when we’re not looking. (Here, Paris has nothing on Georgia, which, if you go by Bertuccelli, Iosseliani, Nana Dzhordzhadze, and other Georgian chroniclers, is the sun-washed-glade Provence of Central Asia.)
Since Otar Left . . . has a wry edge (Eka’s cranky Stalin nostalgia is counterpointed by the routine of an E.R. cardiologist, who stands waiting for cash payment before proceeding), as well as a Rohmer-esque ardor for high-spirited women (in itself a shamefully rare movie vibe), but its triumph is textural. Close-ups are rare, environments are thoroughly lived-in, and the action is a matter of unpredictable human impulse, not ironic cleverness, viewer wish-fulfillment, or visual/aural punctuation. Bertuccelli has taken such care with her compositions that it’s quite natural to see the patiently observed actresses all bloom in the process of sustaining the household’s physical equilibrium, from cleaning to hunting down sellable tchotchkes to surviving persistent blackouts—even a dead-of-night trip to the toilet for Eka and Marina speaks volumes about the rhythms of their inner lives. (Only toward the end, with Bertuccelli perhaps feeling pressured to supply a dramatic arc, is Khomassouridze’s stern teenager given a regrettably clumsy speech, and no chore to perform as she says it.) If Otar is, finally, a mite thin and predictably structured, that takes little away from the filmmaker and her cast, who work hard at fashioning the most outlandish special effect of all: believable human life.