By Dave Wilson | May 24, 2011
Director: Otar Iosseliani
Writer: Otar Iosseliani
Starring: Amiran Amiranashvili, Davit Gogibedashvili, Giorgi Tsintsadze, Nino Ordjonikidze
Vano (Amiran Amiranashvili), the anti-hero at the center of director Otar Iosseliani’s Brigands, Chapter VII (1996), is a swaggering, medieval ruler who is more concerned with protecting his wife’s chastity than he is with safeguarding his kingdom from marauders. But even heavy iron chastity belts can be compromised, and smug husbands can be duped, betrayed, or poisoned. The only thing is: when you have an executioner on the payroll and happen to own an exhaustive, leather-bound torture manual, it’s a fairly simple matter to the last word.
But cruelty and betrayal are timeless phenomena and cannot be bound by a single period. In Iosseliani’s film, Vano is also a petty thief who rises to the top of the Communist Party in Soviet-ruled Georgia of the 1930s. He is also a bearded, world-weary looter, wandering through the Republic of Georgia in the nineties trying to make a buck on the black market while the civil war rages on. Vano quietly goes about his business like some depressive, Eastern European cousin to Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. Instead of squatting in the sand while the napalm rains down, he shrugs and hitches rides on tanks while the bullets and mortars pound into the bricks, and senior citizens with shopping bags are picked off a few feet away by rooftop snipers. Blink again and now Vano is an arms dealer who scores big and flies off with his co-conspirators to Paris to enjoy the spoils. Finally, here he is again shambling through Paris, sleeping on the streets, sharing bottles with the other ragged men who have nowhere to go.
By now, you might be imagining some sort of omnibus film: a loose, conventional collection of shorts, linked somehow by an actor, a place, or a theme. But Brigands is far from conventional, and you’ll tear your hair out trying to spy the edges of these stories. Instead of framing these incidents as self-contained episodes, Iosseliani casually fractures time, cutting into and then away from these settings at will, so that a troubling incident for Stalinist-era Vano might result in medieval Vano waking from a sudden nightmare centuries earlier. Sometimes we join a particular story for a minute or two, glimpsing an action so brief it’s like a chord in some longer musical passage. On other occasions, we settle in for a longer stretch. The Stalinist sequence, for example, dominates the film’s middle section. At first, I was disoriented, frustrated, grasping at threads. Where am I? Who is this? What’s going on?
A little while later, none of these questions mattered anymore. The thematic connections were more important than the details. What was constant, what kept recurring again and again in all of these disparate times was what I can only call a sense of casual cruelty. There are other shades and permutations, too: selfishness, betrayal, barbarism, and torture. At the center of the film, certainly, there is an indictment of Stalinism and communist Georgia—of the repression, the bloodshed, the fear and hypocrisy that pervaded the times and led to all sorts of casual denunciations and betrayals. Yes, we see a boy in a neat red kerchief march off to denounce his schoolteacher after she corrects him in front of his classmates, even though this will surely lead to the knock on the door, the march up the hill, and death by firing squad. For the boy, this denunciation is thrown off carelessly, without a second thought; he’ll even literally get a pat on the head by the party member who takes his report.
But Iosseliani casts his gaze far beyond communism and the purges of the thirties and forties. Nobody is off the hook here. This is a political film, but it’s also an unflinching look at all that is base and petty. The kind of panoramic view Iosseliani is after, while rooted in the history and politics of Georgia and the USSR, is also universal and eternal. And so that same unremarkable figure, Vano, and his small band of comrades, brigands, gun runners, and associates exist everywhere and in every time, to the extent that Vano, the homeless drunk in contemporary Paris happens upon an old painting in the window of an antique shop that depicts a certain medieval king with the same bent nose and pitiless gaze. Even Vano makes the connection. A double take, a shrug, and off he goes again.
Another element that holds all of these fragments together is an unsettling variety of black humor. I don’t mean the kind of humor that will make you laugh. But some of the most striking passages in the film are imbued with cynicism, irony, and out and out absurdity. The centerpiece of the film and the sequence I still can’t shake a day later takes place in the Soviet-era episode. We’re all familiar with the “take your kid to work” concept. Well, in Brigands, a uniformed father takes his son to the imposing fortress down the street, drapes a cloth across a table, and quietly lays out a series of gleaming metal torture instruments. Of course, he demonstrates each one along the way, jokes and pantomimes, while the boy looks on. And yes, he then takes his son into a cell, hides him behind a curtain with a peephole, and lets him see Dad at work. The rest is left to our imaginations. An hour later, the boy is in the car with his mom (“How was it? Was it interesting?”), on his way to school for the rest of the day.
Brigands, Chapter VII is a difficult film to watch, but it will reward viewers who make it past that initial feeling of disorientation to embrace its pointed observations and intertwining themes. Yes, its unconventional narrative structure can be challenging, but the real challenge may be its relentless and cynical tone that leaves little room for hope. This is where we have come from, Iosseliani says. This is where we are going. And so Vano and his associates wander forever through a world that is cruel, absurd, and characterized by violence that is routine and impossible to avoid.
Brigands, Chapter VII is now available as part of the Facets DVD 2-pack,You Say You Want a Revolution.