'Shindisi': Film Review

Courtesy of 20 Steps Productions
Peasant cunning bests military might in a tale of quiet heroism.

Georgia’s Oscar submission tells a harrowing true story taken from the Russo-Georgian War of 2008.

Shindisi is the name of the sleepy village where director Dito Tsintsadze’s passionately told tale of soldiers and civilians is set, a story made all the more poignant because it is taken from a real-life incident from the brief Russo-Georgian War of August 2008. For those turned off by war films, this is not your typical macho fantasy, though there is a long and well-filmed sequence of shooting, shelling, torching and grenades. But the pic’s real focus is on the compassion and bravery of the villagers who risked their lives to rescue wounded Georgian troops.

Though its prime audience will be Georgians who have a personal investment in the war, the fast-moving narration and delicate handling of emotions earmark it as auteur cinema for festival attention, beginning with competition in Warsaw. The story will have a topical ring for international viewers, who are bound to make parallels between the Russian military incursion into Georgia, which resulted in the creation of two Russian-backed republics, and the current situation in Ukraine.

This is the second feature that Tsintsadze has released this year, following on the heels of his dark and haunting study of people’s unreasoning hatred of those who are different, Inhale-Exhale. Perhaps because of Shindisi's patriotic theme and its less complex moral stance, it has been tapped as Georgia’s hopeful for the international feature film Oscar. It is, in any case, a model of quietly powerful filmmaking that describes the experience of warfare from multiple viewpoints.  

Panic sweeps over a pretty rural village as word spreads that the Russians are coming. Everybody grabs what they can and hurries out of town by oxcart or on foot, knowing they may never see their homes again. Only two families stay behind: stoic old Badri (Goga Pipinashvili) with his sick wife Khatia (Tamar Abshilava); and the burly drunk Vazja (Dato Bakhtadze), still grieving for his dead wife, with his teenage daughter Mariam (Mariam Jibladze), who seems to be in a world of her own. Khatia is recognizably Ossetian, an ethnicity closely allied to the Russians, so she and Badri have some smattering of protection. Vazja has the courage of his angry grief, and one presumes that only the thought of leaving Mariam alone restrains him from shooting a Russian.

At the same time, a local sapper unit of some 20 lightly armed combat engineers learns that a cease-fire has been declared and peace talks are underway. They are to be evacuated from the combat zone without harm, but when Russian forces moves into the area with a tank and lots of ammo, their fate is in the hands of a vindictive young general (played with smug villainy by Dimitri Lupol). He tricks their small convoy of jeeps and trucks into an isolated area, where they are attacked by superior forces and left for dead in a grueling, realistic scene of David vs. Goliath combat heroics.

When the shooting dies down, four or five of the Georgians are still breathing. With the Russians patrolling the village, it’s a dangerous game for the villagers to spirit them away and hide them. Tsintsadze and his editor create a good deal of suspense around these nighttime rescues, which Badri and Vazja carry out as silently and matter-of-factly as if they were herding their cows into another pasture, aided by Khatia and Mariam.

They find strong allies in the Georgian Orthodox clergy, who are given permission to come to the village to collect the dead. The tale culminates in a heart-stopping marriage ceremony in which Badri weds his Khatia, who is fighting a losing battle against her illness. While the Russian general and his men get drunk, the bearded priests and villagers play a stunning trick on them that ends the film on an upbeat note.

The whole cast is expressive and highly individualized, but never so over-the-top they stop being believable human beings.

Production companies: 20 Steps Productions, Free Movie Studio
Cast: Goga Pipinashvili, Tamuna Abshilava, Dato Bakhtadze, Mariam Jibladze, Dimitri Lupal
Director: Dito Tsintsadze

Screenwriter: Irakli Solomonashvili
Producers: Edmond Minashvili, Vladimer Katcharava, Konstantin Esadze
Co-producer: Manana Shevardnadze
Director of photography: Konstantin Esadze
Production designer: Teo Baramidze
Editor: Levan Kukhashvili
Music: Zviad Mgebry
Casting director: Eka Mzhavanadze

101 minutes