Georgian cinema continues to show thriving signs of life in Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry, a film about a contently independent woman who is faced with the thrills and spills of companionship for the first time. A breakout at Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes earlier this year and a deserved winner, last week, of both best film and actress at the Sarajevo Film Festival, Blackbird is the latest from Elene Naveriani, a 38-year-old director who co-wrote the script with the writer and feminist activist Tamta Melashvili. From that collaboration springs an unlikely tale about the shock of attraction, about how bodies appear depending on how we see them and who’s looking, and about the joys of touch and solitude and whether or not they need be mutually exclusive.
Naveriani’s third feature opens with swagger and a literal cliffhanger: Eto, our immediately likable champion of self-sufficiency, is out picking berries when she slips and almost falls into a ravine. Walking home, she sees her own body looking back up at her. But the glance suggests little in the way of menace. Either way, no sooner has Eto returned to her village––back behind the register at the drugstore that is her sovereign realm––than she is enjoying a sojourn on the floor with her delivery man, Murman (Temiko Chichinadze), thus ending 48 years of virginity. This unlikely moment, as fun as it is sensual, plants a fork in the road of a hitherto linear life, bringing the character to question her own hard-won beliefs and to wonder how exactly the other townspeople––namely an arch gaggle of gossipy women––will react.
That central psychological tug of war makes for compelling cinema, and Naveriani’s film manages to grow more curious and complex without losing its sense of joy and pleasant eroticism. Much of this must be attributed to a remarkable central performance from Eka Chavleishvili, who was first cast in Naveriani’s last film, Wet Sand, and played a minor but memorable part in Soso Bliadze’s Otar’s Death (2021). In Blackbird, she is no less than phenomenal: effortlessly funny and endearing in practical dress, boots, and bumbag, she captures Eto’s self-reliance without forsaking any of the character’s inherent warmth. Watch how quickly her fascinating face (owlish and childlike at times, shifting to something like a baroque painting whenever the eyebrows get involved) switches from stoic assurance to cautious joy. When she leans in for a kiss, suddenly disarmed, it’s thrilling. When things escalate further you’re reminded of the absurdity of one particular corner of the online discourse.
One of the many pleasing things about the surge of Georgian films this last half-decade has been their apparent refusal to get lumped in together. Aside from a poetic sensibility and offbeat humor, you’d be hard-pressed to find a common, sociopolitical thread in the likes of And Then We Danced (Akin, 2019), Beginning (Kulumbegashvili, 2020), What Do We See When We Look at The Sky? (Koberidze, 2021), Brighton 4th (Koguashvili, 2021), and Taming The Garden (Jashi, 2021). Blackbird doesn’t buck the trend: it themes are the stuff of realist cinema while its mood is fevered––at times even operatic––and the colors saturated. Nor is Naveriani sparing with her images: in one dazzling moment, drenched with symbolism, a young woman buys a red-ripe watermelon from a stall in front of an old building, its façade coated like a widow’s veil. If anything, Naveriani‘s approach seems closer to the pulpy, genre experiments of Cristian Petzold and his Berlin School contemporaries––decent company, in either case.
“There’s a difference,” Harry Dean Stanton once explained, “between lonely and being alone.” For the majority of its running time, Blackbird grapples with that idea, often making a rare case for the latter. When Eto is asked what she will do on her holiday, she responds, “I will sit and cross my legs. Read a book.” (Amen to that.) Cinema rarely looks towards solitary old age with such a sense of pleasurable relief. That Blackbird does so feels revelatory; thus I couldn’t help feeling a touch shortchanged to see the film lose its nerve at the very last, giving in to easier laughs and less-satisfying sentiment––even if Naveriani ends things less on a full stop than a question mark. But not to bother. In Eto she has created one of the most memorable protagonists of the year, Chavleishvili’s performance among the best of the lot.
Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry screened at the Sarajevo Film Festival.