Hope is a weird thing. I'm pretty certain the last couple of scenes of "Since Otar Left . . .," Julie Bertuccelli's wonderful family drama, constitute a happy ending. So why is everybody crying? Why was I tearing up?
"Since Otar Left . . ." is set in post-Soviet Georgia, and its family is three generations of women, living in harmony in Tbilisi. The three women, ranging from ancient to adolescent, don't always see eye to eye, but their differences are handled with eloquence.
Bertuccelli was born and educated in Paris, and she has a background in documentary filmmaking, which shows in her lack of intrusiveness. The camera watches these women, never dictating or analyzing, merely trying to keep up. Christophe Pollock did the deep, plangent photography.
The eldest woman is a spellbinding octogenarian named Eka, who's played with utter resplendence by Esther Gorintin. Eka awaits regular correspondence from her son Otar, a doctor who's now doing construction work in Paris. He's just a series of one-sided phone calls and loving letters that occasionally cough out cash. But to Eka, he's the whole world, which quietly perturbs her daughter Marina (Nino Khomassouridze), who, as a woman in her 40s, still lugs around a sibling's rivalry for her mother's affection.
The two women clearly love each other, but Marina knows that no matter how long her mother stays with her, the old lady's heart is always with Otar. So when Marina learns her brother has died in a work accident, she faces a dilemma. Should she break the news to Eka, who happens to be away in the country when the terrible call comes in, or devise a ruse?
Like the kids in "Good Bye, Lenin!," she opts for the ruse, enlisting her scholarly teenage daughter Ada (Dinara Droukarova) to write letters as her uncle to keep Eka pacified. The ploy is a success. Eka believes the knockoff epistles, and here we get further insight into the scope of her open mind. She happens, still, to be a stark, raving Stalinist -- he never killed anybody, she swears -- so apparently, she'll believe anything.
The heart of the movie beats with Ada, who dutifully complies with the plan until her mother lets slip a detail about the death of Ada's father that's depressingly similar to the stunt Marina is currently pulling. Suddenly, Ada gets ethical, plaintive, and prickly. She starts to resent the lengths to which her mother has gone to protect her grandmother, going so far as to tell Marina she is selfish.
The girl's case is a strong one, and Droukarova's warmth and simplicity make her charges sting all the more. Ada is the only person with sense enough to see things for what they are.
In spite of Khomassouridze's gorgeously theatrical face, "Since Otar Left . . ." never goes sudsy with melodrama. Bertuccelli, working from a deftly arranged screenplay by Bernard Renucci and Roger Bohbot, has a gentle touch. By turns, the movie is sweet and achy, but never heavy with meaning. The past is the past; there's no going back. Both Marina and Eka know this but can't quite bring themselves to look forward the way Ada is ultimately able to.
Eventually, to buy three tickets to Paris for a visit with Otar, Eka hawks most of her library, including, we're told, her precious Jean Jacques Rousseau books, which is telling giving his pathological obsession with confession. But does Marina come clean even then? Even when it appears the jig must be up, we're given a hearty punch line -- and not entirely at the expense of Eka's naive hope.
What an amazing presence Gorintin has. Never mind her hunched back and white hair, she's no crone. She makes Eka needy for happiness but susceptible to heartbreak. It's a great performance, full of both joy and the quiet, disappointing parts of being alive that come with knowing change is part of life.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.
Since Otar Left . . .
Directed by: Julie Bertuccelli
Written by: Roger Bohbot and Bernard Renucci
Starring: Dinara Droukarova, Nino Khomassouridze, Esther Gorintin, and Temur Kalandadze
At: Museum of Fine Arts, today through Monday, and various dates through July 8
Running time: 102 minutes
In French and Georgian, with subtitles
Unrated (mild language)