Chantrapas: Film Review

The film is light but satisfying fare for the cultured or cinema-literate.

Solemn themes of exile, freedom of expression and the artist's struggle to be understood are tinkled in a wry and charming way by Otar Iosseliani.

CANNES -- Solemn themes of exile, freedom of expression and the artist's struggle to be understood are tinkled in a wry and charming way by Otar Iosseliani, who channels them through the experiences of fictional Georgian director Nicolas (Dato Tarielashvili), who can never be happy or at home anywhere, and whose films flop everywhere.

Offering an affectionately ironic look at both filmmaking and everyday life in Soviet Georgia, Chantrapas is light but satisfying fare for the cultured or cinema-literate. European arthouse cinemas seem to be its natural abode.

Chantrapas opens with a test-screening of Nicolas' film (actually a short film made in 1959 by Iosseliani) to his two best friends. One advises him to re-edit it to avoid certain banning by the authorities. The other friend vehemently champions artistic integrity.

The film then digresses to offer a slice of Georgian small town life: Nicolas' halcyon childhood days of clandestine smoking and drinking, and making mischief on the alcoholic local friar; the townspeople's hilarious fondness for hard liquor; and skits of Nicolas' eccentric and irascible grandfather (Civi Sarchimelidze), who cuffs people over the slightest tiff.

The official verdict on Nicolas' film, his smuggling of the print to a French producer, and his final departure to France are all handled in an understated, slightly farcical touch, with parodic passages of film shooting and film-within-a-film slipped in between.

His arrival in Paris at the halfway point and his life as an emigre symmetrically parallels his life in Georgia. In one thoroughly amusing scene, to prepare for the Soviet ambassador and his cultural attache's visit to his basement lodge, Nicolas and his fellow emigres decorate the room with propaganda posters and play the Internationale at rock-music volume.

Eventually, Nicolas' French lover helps him find investors and producers, but their meeting is a disaster. The film ends on a playfully mythical note, perhaps suggesting that art is as dangerous and seductive as a siren.

Although Nicolas' experiences echo Iosseliani's own life as a director whose works were banned in his native Georgia, prompting his emigration to France, it would be way too simplistic to see the drippy and disgruntled protagonist as the master's alter ego. It is obvious that the director wishes to make a universal observation on how an artist survives in the world, while simultaneously parodying his self-importance. Hence his ironic choice of title Chantrapas (a word coined in 19th Century Russia to describe those who cannot sing, and whose modern usage means "good for nothing") to reinforce his character as a misfit.

Iosseliani also keeps artistic distance by making the time period non-specific, vaguely pre-Glasnost. More importantly, he does not takes sides, showing how the Communist officials express appreciation for Nicolas' film even when they are required to ban it, while the French producers are more authoritarian -- especially in the scene when Nicolas enters the editing room to find the floor piled with outtake film which they have sliced contemptuously.

Technical credits are polished, especially in the superb choice of music scores that is always appropriate to the situation, from traditional folk songs and Soviet propaganda music to classical and contemporary.

Venue: Festival de Cannes -- Out of Competition
Sales: Les Films du Losange
Production companies: Pierre Grise Productions, Sanguko Films, Ministere de la culture (Georgia), Center National de la cinematographie (Georgia)
Cast: Dato Tarielashvili, Tamuna Karumidze, Fanny Gonin, Civi Sarchimelidze, Pierre Etaix, Bulle Ogier.
Director-screenwriter-editor: Otar Iosseliani
Produced by: Martine Marignac
Directors of photography: Lionel Cousin, Julie Grunebaum
Production designer: Emmanuel de Chauvigny
Music: Djardi Balantchivadze
Costume designers: Anna Kalatozishvili, Maira Ramedhan-Levi
Editor: Emmanuelle Legendre
No rating, 122 minutes