The man behind the USSR's most popular film - a parable about tyranny. Director Tengiz Abuladze talks about `Repentance,' a film shelved until glasnost, but now acclaimed in the USSR and France, and soon to be seen in the US.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

TENGIZ ABULADZE, director of the ground-breaking Soviet film ``Repentance,'' is now world-famous. His film won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and it will have its American premi`ere at the Telluride Film Festival in September, with the director in attendance. But acclaim is a twist of fate that seems irrelevant to his artistic principles and long obsession with good and evil.

``As an artist, I don't need perestroika,'' he said, referring to the USSR's economic reorganization under Mikhail Gorbachev. ``My artistic and civic principles have remained the same today as they were 20 years ago.''

We were speaking in a Moscow hotel, where he was staying and had agreed to be interviewed after a quick trip to Vienna.

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His credo: ``To say only the truth, to say yes if your heart says yes, to say no if your heart is not in agreement.''

Subconsciously, he believes, he had already conceived ``Repentance,'' eventually made in 1984, while working on ``The Plea,'' 20 years earlier. These two films are the first and last parts of a trilogy that he considers his masterwork. Before Mr. Gorbachev and the 27th Party Congress, this honesty condemned him to relative obscurity, as the maker of beautiful but ``difficult'' films.

``The Plea'' (1968), a black-and-white meditation on religious enmity based on the work of a 19th-century Georgian poet, is full of nightmarish images and slow shots of village rites, which gradually achieve the power of an incantation. Many of the images are inspired by the painters Bosch and Bruegel. A woman in a long white dress with a train, a rat perched on her head, is a Boschian symbol of the devil, Mr. Abuladze explains.

``The Plea'' was very little shown in the Soviet Union, because Goskino, the government body that has the final say in the film world, decided that ``the people won't understand it.'' Only 150 copies were made, to be shown on ``third screens,'' meaning in film clubs, houses of culture, and in the provinces. ``But everyone who should have seen it, did see it,'' in Abuladze's view. Now its rating has been revised to the highest category.

Did he feel tempted after this experience to make a more commercial film? I asked.

``Never in my life did I want to change my course,'' he asserted, looking somewhat offended by the question.

There was a long gap before the next film of his trilogy in 1977, and he admits that he has needed help from his parents, both professionals, to get by. Soviet directors are not paid if they're not working, even if they are writing scenarios. ``If I can't sing, then I don't pretend to sing'' is his laconic explanation for his periods of artistic silence.

Far from inactive, though, he has been a teacher at the Rustaveli Theater in Tbilisi since 1974. Around that time he also became head of a division of the Georgian film studio, Gruzia Film.

``The Wishing Tree'' was the second film of his trilogy. The story of a village beauty forced to marry a man she does not love, it ends with her public humiliation and death, after a compromising meeting with her beloved. The theme of the innocence of the ``guilty'' appears even more starkly here than in ``The Plea,'' and prefigures the mass victimization of the guiltless that ``Repentance'' dramatizes.

Although it won prizes in the USSR and abroad, ``The Wishing Tree'' was still not widely distributed. In 1978, according to an official biography, Abuladze at the age of 54 became a Communist Party member. In 1981 he began work on the script of ``Repentance.'' It is tempting to connect these two events to the political rise of fellow Georgian Eduard Shevardnadze, at that time party first secretary of the republic. And, in fact, Abuladze said that without Shevardnadze the film would never have been made or released.

Rather than send the script to Goskino, where it was likely to be axed, Abuladze gave it to Georgian television. On a budget of $1.4 million the film was finished in 1984. But then ``some comrades'' found reasons not to show it, and it remained on the shelf until late last year.

``This film is deeper and wider than the problem of Stalin,'' Abuladze says.

As in ``The Plea,'' he tried to create a feeling of timelessness by mixing images of past and present. ``We wanted as much as possible to get away from concreteness, but we found that the more we tried to generalize, the more concrete it became, the more universal.''

The film takes the form of a satire about the tyranny of Varnam, the corrupt mayor of a small Georgian town and a man who happens to have Hitler's mustache, Mussolini's profile, and Stalin's haircut. Soviet viewers recognize traces of Beria, Stalin's notorious interior minister, in the music-loving mayor. And the scene of mother and daughter searching the logs in a lumberyard for some sign from the missing Sandro brings the film close to historical truth.

But on the whole, Abuladze avoids a literal approach in favor of the absurd, to show that ``the time of Varnam was absurd.''

The Soviet news agency Tass has noted that ``the main idea of the film is that evil will be inevitably punished.'' Not all Soviet filmgoers understand or appreciate Abuladze's latest work, surveys have shown. But they have flocked to see it. In two months, more than 4 million people saw the film in Moscow, breaking the box office record of the science fiction film ``Pirates of the Twentieth Century.''

At the film's end ``people have stood and applauded the empty screen in many cities,'' the director says.

Viewers have been intrigued by the religious symbolism in ``Repentance'' - the cakes decorated with churches that keep getting gobbled up by the tyrant's seedy retainer, the old woman at the end searching for the church. Abuladze claims that this is not simply a reference to the loss of religion, but that the churches or shrines represent culture as a whole, the embodiment of goodness, truth, and beauty. ``If these are attributes of religion, then my film is religious,'' he says.

A small, neat man, he frequently changes spectacles as he talks to read citations from a little black notebook. These include critics' opinions and notes from a Pravda commentary on ``studying democracy.''

With Georgian warmth he kisses a woman's hand on parting, but without a trace of flamboyance. Rather, he exudes a concentrated devotion to his art.

A one-time student of the father of Soviet cinema, Sergei Eisenstein, he is in a real sense keeping alive the legacy for the next generation. ``When I was young, the films of Eisenstein made a big impression on me, especially the visual aspect,'' he said. The films of Bunuel have had a strong influence on his art, too, but the first foreign film to excite him was De Sica's ``The Bicycle Thieves,'' a neo-realist classic. ``When I saw this I had the feeling I'd been robbed. He had done everything I'd been wanting to do, in the sense of form and style.''

Abuladze still remembers Eisenstein's caution about his future career: ``The bread of a filmmaker is hard-earned bread.'' And from his own experience he adds: ``A filmmaker must be a real poet, a real artist. He must also have great physical strength - to make a good film means to win a war.''

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