Obituary: Tengiz Abuladze

Tengiz Abuladze, film director: born Tbilisi 31 January 1924; died Tbilisi 6 March 1994.

TENGIZ ABULADZE, the Georgian film director, came to prominence in the Soviet Union under perestroika when his banned film Repentance, a blistering expose of the Stalinist terror, was released in 1986.

Repentance revolves around the death of an old tyrant, Varlam Aravidze, and the refusal of a woman, Ketevan Barateli, to leave his corpse in peace. She repeatedly disinters the corpse and at the trial disinters also the forbidden secrets of the past. Aravidze is universalised as Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, but most obviously as Stalin's fellow Georgian Beria. The sense of helplessness in the face of absolute power is overwhelming and the film is a powerful evocation of the trials which the innocent majority of the Soviet population had to undergo.

Abuladaze was born in 1924 and studied at the Rustaveli Theatrical Institute in Tbilisi from 1943 until 1946. He graduated from VGIK, the All-Union State Cinema Institute, in Moscow, in 1953, after studying under the veteran director Sergei Yutkevich.

Returning to Tbilisi with his fellow Georgian Revaz Chkheidze, Abuladze joined the Gruziafilm studios and together they began their career making documentary films about their country's folklore. In 1955 they made their first nondocumentary film, Magdana's Donkey, which won the Best Short Film award at Cannes in 1956. Abuladze's next work was the feature-length Other People's Children (1958), a psychological portrait of life in Tbilisi. This was followed by I, Grandmother, Iliko and Illarion (1963), a tragicomedy of morals in a mountain village, and the lyrical comedy A Necklace for My Beloved (1973).

Abuladze's reputation is, however, based on a trilogy of films that deal with fundamental questions of good and evil, love and hate, life and death. The first of these, The Prayer (1968), was inspired by the poems of Vazha Pshavela and shot in black-and-white against the severe Georgian landscape familiar from other films of the time. The second film in the trilogy, The Wishing Tree (1971), was an epic tale set in the same landscape and focusing on the hopes and reveries of a young woman and a man's search for the mythical tree that will make dreams come true. The Wishing Tree won festival prizes in Moscow, Czechoslovakia and Italy and was awarded the State Prize of the Georgian Soviet Republic. From 1974 Abuladze taught at the Rustaveli Institute from which he had graduated three decades earlier.

In 1978 Abuladze joined the Communist Party, a normal career move at that time and in that context. In 1980 he was awarded the title People's Artist of the USSR. By now he was one of the leading Soviet Georgian film-makers. On the surface, he was the perfect example of the Soviet cultural nomenklatura. Then in 1983-84 he made Repentance, the film (originally made for Georgian television) that was to catapult him to world-wide attention.

Like so many other films of the 'period of stagnation', Repentance was left 'on the shelf'. So fearful was Abuladze that his film would be destroyed that he is reputed to have kept the only remaining copy under his bed. When Gorbachev and glasnost arrived and the old guard in the Soviet film-makers' union was unanimously ejected in 1986, a Conflict Commission was established to review these shelved films. With encouragement from the then Soviet Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze (who, curiously, had been head of the Georgian Communist Party when the film had originally been banned), Repentance was released, first in Georgia and then across the Soviet Union, where it attracted record audiences and became the flagship film of the whole glasnost process.

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