Pantheon Int'l #50: GEORGIA - 'There Once Was a Singing Blackbird'

Pantheon Int'l is a daily blogging project; I'll be watching a movie from a different country every day for the next four months and writing about it.   Click here for a complete list with links to each article.

Iko shashvi mgalobeli, d. Otar Iosseliani, Georgia, 1970, 78min., Drama

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"He has a 90-minute pause!"

After watching There Once Was a Singing Blackbird, I watched a DVD supplement where a colleague of Otar Iosseliani described his films as having a deceptive simplicity.  That's definitely true of this film; there was a point in watching it where I felt like I was missing quite a bit.  For one thing, the subtitles seemed spotty.  But, as it turns out, probably not much of importance was being said.  By the end of the film, the simplicity and universality of the events had really connected with me.

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The film follows the daily happenings of a man named Guia, who has many things going on in his life but doesn't seem to be committing himself fully to any of them.  He's a musician, but he always shows up late to his gigs.  He's a composer, but when he goes to write, he gets tired and takes a nap instead.  He is constantly meeting girls he knows, but they are all upset with him for not calling regularly.  He obviously enjoys knowing and meeting a lot of people, these quick interactions with people seem to be when he is at his happiest, although he will suddenly flit to the next thing and perhaps not form a closer connection to most of the people he knows.  Despite being talented, there's a strong implication that he is close to being fired from his main job with a state-run opera orchestra.

There's not a lot of plot here, but somewhere or another I started to identify with Guia somehow.  Some specifics of his life and his personality are kept a little vague, and I think in this film's context that allowed me to project on to him.  I think we all have had times where we feel really busy, but then worry that we're not accomplishing anything with our lives, or that we're not in the line of work that is our true calling.

And then there are the possible political ramifications of the film.  This is not the kind of film where I think a spoiler of the ending is going to take away from the experience of watching it, but be warned, I am about to give away the ending.

Guia dies suddenly by happenstance.  He is struck by a car while crossing the street (in retrospect, there are a couple of scenes in the movie that portend this end).  The last scene ends with one of his acquaintances working on the gears of a pocketwatch.  Obviously time and the finite span of one's life is a theme of the film, but I didn't feel Iosseliani was trying to tell me that Guia should have strived for more in his life.  He was living life to the fullest when he was flirting with all the girls and dropping in on a group of people to lead them in a rousing folksong.  His bureaucratic job with the orchestra was stifling; as one of his coworkers points out in an appeal to his employers, the show they are currently doing requires him to sit in his place for 90 minutes just so that he can perform one last drumroll for the final cadence.  It's time he would rather spend sneaking away to soak up the sun in a nearby park.  
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Otar Iosseliani's films faced constant censorship from Soviet officials.  It seems ridiculous to modern thought that such an innocuous and ambiguous thing could be thought of as a threat to the regime.  But Guia's unproductiveness would have been seen as a negative image to a party that stressed workers as the heroes of the collective good.  And it's interesting to note that the title of the film is the Georgian equivalent of "Once upon a time" - the phrase that begins all fairy tales.  Maybe the final image of There Once Was a Singing Blackbird identifies its hero as an integral part of the clockwork, and not a broken part that should be removed and replaced.

This film was released once in a 2-disc, 4-film DVD boxset of Iosseliani's films.  You might have to track down a used or rental copy of it, if you want to see this.  I'll be coming back to this set and reviewing the others later this year.