An arthouse documentary film about a painter who wants to live outside a mercenary system and just paint tributes to cows and sleep outside? Yes, I love you.
But first, a brief political history:
The kingdom of Georgia was founded in the 11th century. When Ottoman and Iranian rule began to threaten Georgia’s autonomy, Russia lent its support, leading to the annexation of Georgia by Russia from the early 1800s to 1918. Georgia had a brief respite of independence and then became a republic of the Soviet Union in 1922.
In 1953, Stalin died. In 1956, rising leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin in his famous speech, “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences.”
Young Georgians viewed Stalin with pride, because they knew little of the Gulag and because Stalin was from Georgia- his real last name being Dzhugashvili, meaning steel. Leaked excerpts of Khruschchev’s speech compelled students to gather at the Stalin monument in downtown Tbilisi. Thousands joined in the streets, praising Stalin. Demonstrations ended when tanks entered Lenin Square (now Liberty Square) and protestors were shot at.
Remarkably, it is this pro-Stalin sentiment that led to anti-Soviet, Georgian independence in 1991.
During Khruschev’s reign, censorship relaxed, trade opened, and culture widened. Georgian film studios that had prior been limited to propaganda (Stalin’s favorite director was the Georgian Mikheil Chiaureli), now had the opportunity to produce for international recognition.
Many Georgian films of the 60s discussed consumerism and nonconformism. Shengelaia likely chose to draw attention to the self-taught Georgian painter Niko Pirosmani because his life (1862-1918, dying just short of Georgia’s first independence) mirrored these themes. Pirosmani made paintings for taverns all over Tbilisi, and while the tavern owners appreciated his art, they sold it as soon as the chance arose. Pirosmani opened a dairy shop, then let the poor take everything for free. Legend tells that he unrequitedly loved an actress and sold all that he owned to deliver a million flowers to her home. Pirosmani turned down any offer of financial security to avoid being “shackled.”
A lingering sadness makes this film difficult to watch. Pirosmani is already shackled. He may not want money, but needing it is obligatory. Despite the honor of trying to live by his own values, going against society makes for loneliness. We’re never granted more than a second of his happiness.
That being said, there is sweet tenderness in the film’s commitment to truth, even if that means misery. The reading of Mark 11 in the opening to the film, just short of the prophetical passage in which Yeshua (Jesus) enters Jerusalem on a donkey while “Hosannah!” is cheered by a crowd, offers a glimpse at what Shengelaia is defending and crying out for.
Toasts are a big part of Georgian culture- feasts (supras) are led by a tamada, a toastmaster. There are several scenes in Pirosmani where toasts are given—toasts for the she-dove and he-dove, for all the unfortunate people, for God’s blessing. In one scene, Pirosmani is sitting alone in a tavern when some men call to him:
“Join us, let’s drink together. Bless our table, good man. Or at least curse us. What are you grieving about? What worm is eating out your heart? Share it with us. We’re human too. Maybe we’ll understand you. It’s hard to go through a life alone.”
After a pause, Pirosmani stands. “To your wonderful company,” he says, then leaves the tavern.
And, check out this home office!
Next in Nigeria,
(Pirosmani is available on YouTube. Family-friendly but rejection out of boredom is likely.)