The emigrant’s story of what it feels like to gamble on a better future has been a cinematic staple, from Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate to Jim Sheridan’s recent In America. Since Otar Left, a French production set in the former Russian republic of Georgia, treats the other side of emigrant life: those people–often old, often female–left behind, who wait for letters, money and a keyhole glimpse into life on the other side. Otar is a Georgian doctor who has left his 90-year-old mother, his sister and his niece behind in a cramped Tbilisi apartment and now survives on construction work in Paris. He sends home letters to his Francophile mother, who kisses each one as if she were making contact with her son’s own skin.
In so many details, director Julie Bertucelli’s impressive feature film debut refuses to take the sentimental road, even down to casting. Rather than some sweet, apple-faced old lady, Otar’s mama, Eka (Esther Gorintin), has a slightly gnomish quality, hunched posture and a head of white, cottony hair. Like the willful, vividly drawn matriarch of The Mother, this granny is shrewd and purposeful, but terribly human and dignified, too. She paints her nails a pretty, dark red in anticipation of a reunion with her son. And she angrily berates a neighbor who trespasses in Otar’s room.
Otar’s escape to the West exacerbates tensions between Eka and his sister, Marina (Nino Khomasuridze), a cynical, aging beauty who lives in her brother’s shadow. Marina simply can’t compete with a son who has always done right and is recast once again as the family’s hero and savior.
It turns out that Otar was not the first to leave. Marina’s soldier husband died in Afghanistan. And like so many whose quota of tragedy has been exceeded, Marina has become slightly mercenary in her dealings with the world. Her joy evaporated, she decides to simply survive instead. But the one thing she can’t bear is to see that hopelessness seep into her mother. So when Eka’s one remaining chance at happiness, Otar, dies in Paris, Marina convinces her daughter, Ada (Dinara Drukarova), to keep it a secret from Eka.
Disappointment courses through these characters’ veins. And it defines their surroundings, from the skeletal, decaying apartment towers framed against a somber gray dawn to Marina’s occupation in an enormous open flea market where bit by bit, she sells off the family’s belongings. Hardship has picked all of the meat off this place, leaving nothing but bones. The one antidote offered, which Bertucelli treats with exceptional grace, is family, as demonstrated in the tenderness exchanged between literature student Ada and Eka.
Otar is also about a country left behind. The Soviet Union, which once promised global power and state protection to its constituents, is now squalid and abandoned as its most adventurous citizens flee for the West. When Eka has a heart attack, the family rushes her to the hospital where they find a doctor calmly wrapping up his chess game before he helps them, and then doing everything but hold out his hand for payment. Capitalism has no clear trickle down here, where the electricity routinely flickers off and phone service is sporadic. As in this year’s Good Bye Lenin!, there is a pervasive melancholy to the collapse of communism. It may not have offered its citizens much in the way of a better life, but its leaders promised at least the pretense of paternalism and ideals worth believing in.
Marina’s boyfriend explains to Ada that her mother comes from a disappointed generation, and she would be wise not to follow in her footsteps. By the end of the film, Ada has decided not to, but that decision is bittersweet, illustrating once again that with every escape, someone is left behind.