The film that was shelved until glasnost. Soviet epic `Repentance' tweaks tyranny with satire, surrealism, and more

A touch of glasnost, the Soviet Union's new ``openness'' policy, came to the Rocky Mountains a few weeks ago. It happened when Tenghiz Abuladze, a leading Soviet filmmaker, presented an early American showing of his epic ``Repentance,'' a cinematic assault on Stalinism in Soviet history and in human consciousness. Introducing his film, the dapper and urbane-looking Mr. Abuladze took care to note that the project was undertaken with Eduard Shevardnadze's approval. Now the Soviet foreign minister, Mr. Shevardnadze served the Brezhnev government as Communist Party chief of Georgia, the Soviet republic that produced both Abuladze and Stalin.

Abuladze also noted that ``Repentance'' lay on a shelf for two full years after its completion, deemed by Soviet authorities to be unviewable by Soviet audiences. It was finally resurrected under the glasnost policy, which allowed it to be shown at France's important Cannes Film Festival, where it won the special jury prize. This led to a special screening at the Soviet embassy in Paris, and thence to an engagement in Moscow, where it was became a huge popular success.

Since it's a difficult and unconventional film, one guesses that the enthusiastic Soviet reception of ``Repentance'' was generated more by its antiauthoritarian message than by ordinary entertainment values.

Whether audiences will be similarly enthused in the United States is now to be tested: ``Repentance'' opens today in New York and Los Angeles theaters. It has already won two prizes at the Chicago Film Festival and been featured at the New York and Toronto filmfests. I noticed a considerable amount of restlessness during its first Telluride showing, though, leading me to suspect that its complexities and obscurities will prove too much for many Westerners to sit still for.

It isn't hard to imagine why Soviet officials looked at ``Repentance'' with displeasure. Attacking the evils of government repression, it uses a wide range of cinematic devices - satire, melodrama, brutality, surrealism - to make its point as forcefully as possible. The story begins with the death of a government official in Georgia, where ``Repentance'' was filmed. This fictional mayor was quite a tyrant, and people are shedding only crocodile tears for him.

To the astonishment of everyone, though, the dead man won't stay buried: His body keeps popping up in unlikely places. It turns out there's a vendetta against the corpse by a vengeful woman, who says her family was tormented by him when he was alive. A mirror image of Antigone, she has vowed not to let him rest in peace. As she goes on trial for her behavior, the dead mayor's son - who is now in power - reluctantly learns some lessons about the wages of dictatorship.

In this film, director Abuladze wants to condemn not only Stalinism, but dictatorship of all kinds. Hence the villain has Hitler's mustache and Mussolini's black shirt, as well as Stalin's kind of boots and facial expression.

What's most ferocious in the satire, though - and what may have annoyed Soviet authorities most - is how the movie's tyrant isn't buried in the past, but keeps coming back to haunt the present. This is an unmistakable reminder that all government power - in bygone years and, by implication, today - carries the danger of abuse and has to be watched carefully.

Running about 2 hours and jammed with symbols, metaphors, and strange visual touches, ``Repentance'' is a difficult film in many ways, reflecting the complexities of its subject. It has been suggested that Abuladze was reacting not only against Stalinism when he made the picture, but against the tradition of ``socialist realism,'' an official policy calling for artists to serve the communist cause through unambiguous and easily accessible work.

Abuladze is no newcomer to offbeat cinema. He has been challenging movie conventions for a long time - in keeping with the freewheeling heritage of Georgian film, which has also given us the surrealistic visions of acclaimed director Sergei Paradjanov.

``Repentance'' itself is the concluding section of a trilogy, all of which - shown in its entirety at the Telluride filmfest - is as unpredictable as its last installment. ``Entreaty,'' the 1968 first section, is a dreamlike allegory on religion and art, often recalling the heavy pace and somber imagery of Andrei Tarkovsky's classic ``Andrei Rublev.'' Abuladze felt it necessary to introduce this film at Telluride with a long explanation of its symbols and themes. By contrast, ``The Wishing Tree'' - the second part of the trilogy, made in 1977 - takes the form of a colorful romance about Georgian country life as it touches on subjects of innocence and guilt.

In style and tone, ``Repentance'' falls between the murky poetics of ``Entreaty'' and the folksy embroideries of ``The Wishing Tree,'' tackling a troublesome subject with a bold mixture of narrative strategies. Not all its arrows hit their targets.

But its message is worth heeding everywhere. And its frontal attack on Stalinism makes it a landmark in Soviet film history.

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