Cinema has always had a way of opening unfamiliar places up to the world––if not always for a visit, then at least in the imaginations of those watching. The success of Georgian cinema in the last few years has come at a time when the country’s political future (and the possibility for that openness) seems up for grabs: on one side, a new generation leaning toward the West; on the other, a ruling party (improbably named Georgian Dream) attempting to buck the trend––and with an ally in the East willing to lend a hand. In the new film Panopticon, that fraught political moment is mirrored in a young man’s coming-of-age as he attempts to swim against the sexual, religious, and societal forces threatening to pull him under.

The story takes place in a village near Tbilisi, where the 18-year-old Sandro (Data Chachua) lives alone with his elderly grandmother, to whose eye-rolling disapproval he continues praying to the icons left by his father (a scene-stealing Malkhaz Abuladze), who has abandoned them both to devote his life to God. (He does at least remain in the area, which is more than can be said for mom.) By the film’s start, Sandro’s largely performative religious devotion has already started to chafe against his burgeoned sexuality––a point that is driven home in an opening sequence in which he abandons his cross in order to keep hold of a USB stick that a boy on his football team, Lasha (Vakhtang Kedeladze), leaves behind. Before viewing its contents, however, he still makes sure that his father’s icons are turned the other way.

Panopticon is all about looking and being looked at, how people can still desire or worry about each other, regardless of the consequences. At the Karlovy Vary premiere, director George Sikharulidze, a 35-year-old from Tbilisi, introduced his debut by quoting Foucault’s “visibility is a trap” before suggesting that being seen can also be an act of emancipation––a kind of unlearning of the surveilled mindset. Sandro’s winding path to that realization is lit by a tender infatuation he holds for Lasha’s mother, Natalia (Ia Sukhitashvili), who works in a salon and whose touch when shampooing Sandro’s hair takes on a sensual, if not all-out erotic edge. This newfound obsession and an apparent kink for exhibitionism (another Sikharulidze twist on Foucault’s idea) comes in stark contrast to the young man’s relationship with his girlfriend, Tina (Salome Gelenidze), an artist with whom he has never been fully naked, despite some admirable efforts on her behalf.

How this left-coded, artistic young woman has become so enamored with a supposedly devout and often belittling young man is one of a few things that Sikharulidze’s film leaves to the imagination. Another is Sandro’s quick radicalization––in order to enter Natalia’s orbit, he starts to hang out with Lasha’s far-right buddies, joining them at a demonstration where his pent-up emotions find a violent release. (This is juicy, compelling stuff, yet the group features so sporadically as to feel a bit like set decoration.) In another scene, they go to scope out a nightclub (disapprovingly, of course) where Sandro recognizes one of the dancers from school. She explains that she likes to be looked at, a choice he judges her for at first before admitting he can relate––another interesting subplot, but a later development in their relationship still left me feeling like I’d missed a scene.

The film largely overcomes those narrative snags through both the strength of the filmmaking––stunning widescreen imagery by the great Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu, classy editing by frequent Alice Rohrwacher collaborator Giorgia Villa, and a tasteful and effective score from Chiara Costanza––and the depth of the performances; best of all the strange chemistry between Chacua (all uncertainty and interior strife in what is only his first screen role) and Sukhitashvili (who was so great in Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning and once again draws the eye here). When mutual attraction is suggested––a bold and delicate move, deftly handled by the director––you won’t be quick to doubt it.

Panopticon premiered at the 2024 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Grade: B

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