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Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2004
The son who never went away
By KAORI SHOJI
In Japan, it's fashionable for many young women to say that, in their old age, they hope to be a "cute grandma," someone lovable and cherishable and . . . cute. But "Depuis qu'Otar est parti . . . (Since Otar Left)" teaches women (and men too) that this kind of passive cuteness won't get us through the difficult last years of life.
For inspiration and instruction, look no further than the main character, Eka, who is 90 years old and wears her dignity and intelligence like an elaborate mantle on her diminutive frame. She doesn't nag or complain, but she also makes sure she gets her way and rules her household of three women with a feisty authority on par with Catherine the Great. Eka makes you think she'd coolly chew up any cute grandma before her morning cup of Russian tea.
"Depuis," directed by Julie Bertucelli, is a French film made in Tbilisi, Georgia, which used to be part of the Soviet Union before declaring independence in 1991. Like other ex-Soviet states, Georgia is plagued by bad infrastructure, lack of jobs and crumbling industrial apartments from the Stalin era. However, it's also possible to live here with a genteel, elegant frugality as demonstrated by Eka (Esther Gorinthin), her 50-year-old daughter, Marina (Nino Khomasuridze), and granddaughter Ada (Dinara Drukarova).
The three women live in an apartment so cramped that mother and daughter sleep in the same bed. However, the walls in the living room are lined with rare French books, they take tea from delicate cups and saucers and Eka has the kind of distinguished, charming wardrobe that testifies to a love and knowledge of the finer things in life. Eka is also a devoted Francophile who has taught her whole family to speak French, and Ada is clearly the one who has inherited the old lady's love of France. (Marina, however, tells a friend: "Honestly, I'm sick of this French stuff.")
There is no male presence in their home, save for the letters and occasional calls from Eka's adored son Otar, the only one in the family who made it to Paris. He's now working at a construction site despite his education in medicine, but in Eka's eyes, Otar can do no wrong and Marina resents the absent brother who dominates their mother's affection. She hates it too, when Otar sends money -- she herself ekes out a living from running a junk stand and moans to Ada about their financial woes. Ada is less concerned about funds than she is about her future, since as long as she's in Tbilisi, there's no hope of getting a job that would match up to her French skills and literature degree.
When Otar's friend calls to tell Marina that her brother died in Paris, Eka is away at their dilapidated country cottage, cleaning Otar's old room. Marina can't bear to break her mother's heart and recruits Ada to deceive Eka. The plan is to forge Otar's letters and pretend that he's alive and well. Ada is reluctant, but soon looks forward to writing the letters and then reading them aloud to Eka, escaping into her own fantasies of excursions in Paris and the wonders to be savored in the City of Lights. But when Marina offers to read out a new letter, Eka curtly refuses, telling her daughter that her French accent is appalling.
Indeed, it was once the hallmark of Russian intellectuals to speak and write in flawless French, and Eka remembers a time when she and her late husband hid their copies of Rousseau from the Bolsheviks. Having said so, she gets all nostalgic for Stalin and communism because, apparently, things had at least worked back then. Now the family endures frequent blackouts, faulty showers and cars that grunt and break down at the slightest provocation.
To send or receive mail from overseas, Ada and her grandmother must wait in a classic, Soviet-style line at the post office, and when Eka asks the clerk whether the letter will really reach Paris, she is told off with a shrug: "Light a candle in church." The clerk was talking to the wrong lady: Eka is not the type to ask for any favors from God (and she'll prove later that she doesn't need to be shielded from the truth) and shows it by selling off her precious books and buying three round-trip tickets to Paris for herself, Marina and Ada.
Gorinthin, who plays Eka, started her acting career five years ago at the age of 85. She's Polish, so both Russian and French are foreign languages to her but she speaks and acts as though she had never been out of Georgia her entire life, wearing the character of Eka like a worn and trusted overcoat. In the scene where Eka treats herself to an afternoon outing (two cigarettes smoked with relish on the seat of a rusty Ferris wheel) she doesn't even seem old anymore -- just incredibly chic and devil-may-care. In that moment, the years fall away and we see that cinema rarity: a woman enjoying herself alone, in total and absolute control.
Ditch the cuteness, girls: Here's the real role model.