'Inhale-Exhale': Film Review | Shanghai 2019

Courtesy of SIFF
Subtle, dark and haunting.

Director Dito Tsintsadze returns to his native Georgia with the story of a woman who struggles to fit into society after a prison sentence.

There aren’t many films willing to plunge into the dark caverns of human society with the courage of Dito Tsintsadze’s Inhale-Exhale. With utter simplicity and a masterful touch, the Georgian director (who has relocated to Germany) describes the murderous prejudices of a provincial mining town against anyone seen as different from the norm. This concisely told, haunting film won the grand jury prize at its bow in the Shanghai Film Festival's competition, while Salome Demuria (House of Others) took home best actress laurels for an achingly tough performance that is hard to forget.

Tsintsadze (Lost Killers, Mediator) opens on 37-year-old Irina (Demuria) who has just been released from prison. Shot from behind, she’s led through a dingy residential courtyard by her husband Irakli (Giorgi Nakashidze), like a lamb to the slaughter. The whole family has gathered to celebrate her "homecoming," but like so many of these get-togethers in East European cinema, it is mostly an occasion for bickering and backbiting. Her sister-in-law Tamuna shows some empathy for what she’s been through; if only she wasn’t so wrapped up in her own affairs.

Irina’s backstory comes out in well-timed bits and pieces. As a hospital nurse, she stole drugs for her addict husband, and when caught she took the rap alone so he could look after their two children and his elderly mother. But as Irina soon discovers, all those lonely years in prison have alienated her kids from her — her little school-age boy sleeps with his granny, who spoon-feeds him at the table, and her teenage daughter Sopo won’t even speak to her. The shattered family has settled into a new pattern without her, and Irina finds herself very much an unwanted, unneeded outsider in the house. Every attempt to provoke a confrontation with Irakli and Sopo is met with aggression or the cold shoulder.

Their apartment block is built on the side of a mountain, which is only reachable by an ancient cable car. When she is on the other side of the divide, Irina attends a support group run by a well-intentioned social worker. His program aims to help former prisoners find a place in society, but his psychobabble rings hollow. Instead of finding her a job, he offers tickets to synchronized swimming and yoga classes.

Soon she meets Luka (Lasha Kabanashvili), a languidly handsome young man whose mother was in prison with her. When she brings him news that she is dying of cancer, Luka’s automatic reaction is to reach for the comfort of red lipstick. He is another outsider like herself, clumsily hiding his gayness at the price of having no one to love. Rather charmingly, he tells her that he does yoga because “I want to find out who I am.”

Their foreign yoga teacher Ana (Kamilla Borghesani) has them "inhale, exhale. Find your inner self. There’s only you and the universe." Their huffing and puffing sounds like collective wish fulfillment. But the road to hell really is paved with good intentions and even such well-meaning cheerleading can be dangerous in a violent, ignorant society

Luka invites Irina to a party, where the social worker and yoga teacher are also present. The atmosphere is transgressive and Ana encourages Luka to “express his inner self” by donning a glittering woman’s costume, makeup and wig. As Irina and the other guests look on, he performs a weird, jerky dance that bodes no good. The next day, he goes missing.

Nestan (Nene) Kvinikadze’s screenplay captures other eerie moments that bring out Irina’s alienation from the people around her. She stumbles across a terrible highway accident with many victims being loaded onto stretchers. Instead of helping the paramedics, she comforts a horse dying painfully by the side of the road. Later, she walks through an army of marching miners whose helmet lights cancel out their faces, making them look like identical, menacing aliens. Would she even want to blend into such a society?

Along with excellent, understated performances by Demuria and Kabanashvili, veteran actor Nakashidze leaves his mark as Irina’s whining, threatening, ineffectual husband. 

Production companies: Cinetech Film Production, Viva Film, Georgian National Film Center
Cast: Salome Demuria, Giorgi Nakashidze, Lasha Kabanashvili, Kamilla Borghesani, Daredjan Kharshiladze, Natalia Gabisonia, Irakli Kontridze, Maka Shalikashvili, Gia Salia
Director: Dito Tsintsadze
Screenwriter: Nestan (Nene) Kvinkadze
Producers: Rusudan Glurjidze, Nadezhda Gorshkova
Director of photography: Goga Devdariani
Production designer: Ana Iakobashvili
Music: Alexey Selivestrov
Editor: Grigol Palavandishvili
Venue: Shanghai International Film and TV Festival (competition)

91 minutes