Movies

Coming of Age

Ghia Nodia
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"In Bloom" is a very good new Georgian film: I watched it and enjoyed it. The screening I attended at the Rustaveli movie theatre was followed by a discussion and I have since read several blogs inspired by this movie. And let me also say that I liked the film more than the intellectual discussions it triggered; which, in itself, is an undeniable sign that the movie – and in general, any work of art – is good. An intellectual comment may help a bad movie or a bad literary work: "Oh, now I see how deep and progressive the ideas it contains are." But rational explanations about good art often seem linear and banal.

In this particular case, I think that the problem is an excessive sociologization and ideologization of the movie. What do commentators say? They say that the violence that dominates the society depicted is very bad (and that in the final scene of the movie, the protagonist throwing the pistol into the water is good – i.e. the violence is rejected!); that particularly domestic violence, which is shown abundantly in the movie is bad; that the apathy and lack of solidarity is very bad; that the conformism is bad, with people not fighting against or trying to transform the malevolent environment in which they live (some even blame the girls in the movie of that); that the older generation fails to offer a moral example to the younger generation, and that they misunderstand that generation; that the problem of gender discrimination is acute; and so on and so forth.

The sin of intellectuals is the desire to discern those ideas which they favor in a given piece of art, and to thereby use art as a premise to express those ideas. I will probably prove no exception to this rule, though I will do my best to stay devoted to the movie as I perceived it. To some extent, the movie invites itself to be read as a sociological essay: it depicts the early 1990s, perhaps the most catastrophic era in the recent history of Georgia, in a very honest manner, through accurate but not stylized details. If the younger generation wants to understand and experience what the elder generation recalls about that time, they should watch this movie.

The film's accuracy is especially heightened by the fact that that period is neither romanticized nor judged from any ideological standpoint: it is not a form of "social criticism," thank god! Although I sensed that the film's writers did not like much of what happened back then, they do no try to underscore that fact. The film describes a situation where, after the familiar political and social instruments of the Soviet era fell apart, people find themselves living in hardship, trying to survive in any way they can.

This, however, is the background of the film – and no matter how accurately it is described, we must not get carried away with it; it is not the main idea of the film. The main idea is the oldest and most eternal – a coming of age story. The heroes of the film are two fourteen-year-old girls. This is the age when a child begins to turn into an adult. We no longer understand that properly. In my (Soviet) generation, almost 40-year-old men were considered children and they used to behave as such too: that's why massive amounts of infantilism is one of legacies of the Soviet epoch. Today too, we call university students children and they also refer to themselves as such, with the only difference being that now the people of this age become members of parliament and ministers, though this is a separate issue. In traditional cultures, however, rites of initiation tend to take place around this age, after which an individual is considered to be an adult member of the community and becomes fully accountable for his/her own actions. For example, the Jewish Bar Mitzvah ritual takes place when boys turn 13. "In Bloom" is a movie about the initiation of two girls into adulthood.

Or, to be more accurate, it is one of the two heroes – Eka, who initially seems more childish, weaker, and more vulnerable – that really goes through this initiation. Her friend, Natia, seems more courageous, can better defend herself, and looks more mature (enjoying greater attention from boys). Natia reprimands Eka for failing to adequately respond to aggression from naughty boys and herself provides an example of an adequate reaction. Soon, however, we see that in a critical situation it is Eka who proves to be the stronger personality. The same cannot, however, be said about Natia, who takes ostensibly the main step of initiation into becoming a women by getting married.

The transformation starts when Natia, who is standing in a queue for bread, is abducted in broad daylight by a neighborhood boy she does not like. Eka, being nearby when this happens, turns to the people standing passively in the queue, those who did absolutely nothing to prevent the abduction, and starts swearing at them like a sailor. This outburst costs her a blow from an adult man in the queue, leaving her with a bruised eye. This is the first civil action from Eka, an individual act of protest. But she comes to become disappointed, not only about those people standing in the bread queue, but also about her friend: Natia accepts this cruel twist of fate and marries her abductor (after all, she could not have just returned home ashamed, could she?). Within two days of the abduction the wedding takes place. Eka is, of course, the bridesmaid. However, one can see from her face, in addition to a black eye, the feeling of protest against this injustice. This attitude hurts the feelings of the bride, who tries to deceive herself that she may be happy with her husband and wants her closest friend to believe this lie too.

This is followed by one of movie's culmination scenes (masterly performed by the young actress Lika Babluani): Eka's dance. So as not to hurt her friend's feelings, Eka decides to conceal her unhappiness with the situation and to dance in order to give the impression that she is also enjoying the celebration. Having drunk a glass of wine, she boldly joins a circle of dancing people. The gathered people cheerfully welcome this move as everyone senses Eka's disapproval of the situation and perceive her "U-turn" to be the final legitimization of what has happened. However, the dance is so aggressive and somewhat masculine that it comes into conflict with the philosophy of "giving up" or conformism, something which Natia's choice represents. The power of this episode lies in this very ambivalence.

Yet another hero in the film is a gun, or to be more accurate, a pistol, which Natia, at the beginning of the film, receives as a gift from her admirer, Lado – the boy she preferred to her future husband. By making such a gift before departing for Moscow, Lado wants Natia to defend herself in this violent environment. The appearance of the pistol creates a natural expectation of some disaster among the audience. Moreover, we remember Anton Chekhov's gun quote that "if you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off." This suspense raised fear in me, not only because I felt pity for the person who would be killed by the gun, but also because I did not want the movie to degrade into a banal didactic story about how weapons must not be given to kids. Throughout the film, the two girls often play with the pistol and aim it at each other: the writers of the movie seem to be playing with the audience, constantly holding them in fearful expectation of the weapon going off – what else can a pistol do?

At the end of the day, however, the gun acts in an absolutely non-Chekhovian way. The only bullet it holds remains unused. Paradoxically, the weapon is one of positive heroes of the film: it is through it that the other heroes – primarily Eka – learn how to behave responsibly. Eka even manages to use it for a good cause: by aiming it at some criminals, she saves a young boy from perhaps being beaten to death by two older boys.

The pistol also comes to the fore in the penultimate episode of the film, which seems like a quote from Plato's dialogue The Republic. In this piece of work, an intellectual provocateur, Socrates, in a discussion about the nature of justice, tries to counteract a banal judgment that it is fair to return something to someone it belongs to. Socrates says: "For instance, if a friend loans us a weapon, but then becomes insane and asks for it back – ought we to return the weapon?" It is exactly in such a condition that Eka finds herself: when Lado, having returned to Tbilisi from Moscow, is killed by friends of Natia's husband because he is a rival for Natia's affections, a distraught Natia starts looking for the weapon for retaliation. Eka, however, does not give the pistol to her and, in the end, calmly takes the weapon and throws it into a river (presumably with Natia's consent).

The throwing of the weapon into the river may be perceived as a relatively linear, pacifist performance: "No to violence!" But I think this needs to be clarified: this represents the overcoming of that chaotic, impulsive, infantile, desperate, and powerless violence that society found itself in after it rejected the earlier Soviet regime based on systemic violence justified by scientific ideology (which is brilliantly portrayed by the schoolteacher performed by Marina Janashia). Overcoming this spiritual chaos is necessary for the coming of age.

Finally, the film has one more very important personage who does not feature until the end of the movie: Eka's father who has been imprisoned, presumably for murder, though we do not know this for sure. This is a mythologized personage; his personal items (for example, the last cigarette left in a pack) have acquired a cult-like meaning for Eka and her mother. At the same time, however, Eka shuns relations with father: perhaps, she cannot forgive him for something or maybe there is some other reason – we do not know that for sure either. In short, there is ambivalence again. The overcoming of the cult begins when Eka's light-minded elder sister breaks the taboo and, along with her friend, smokes the last cigarette left by her father. That makes Eka indignant, but then she too joins the act of blasphemy and takes one or two drags herself (this might even be her first try of a cigarette).

In the final (and, I would add, unexpected ending) episode of the film, the 14-year-old Eka independently goes to the prison to visit her father. De-mythologizing the father's figure, and resolving her relations with him is a necessary step in Eka's process of coming of age. However, the film does not go beyond this mere hint: we do not know what will happen between Eka and her father, but understand that Eka has overcome an important complex. The unexpectedness of the film's end has its justification: this is the beginning of the story and it cannot, therefore, be a conventional "end." The film does not end, it suspends. If my memory serves me well, the name of this method is non finito.

I, however, cannot prevent myself from offering a conventional end to this piece and will employ some sociology in doing so. Having a very difficult childhood proved to be the lot of the generation of Eka and Natia – it was way tougher than that of their parents' generation. Many failed to cope with the traumas of that critical age and ruined their lives right from the start. However, it is still not a lost generation – the lost generation is that of their parents who were raised in a seemingly well-running and stable country, but during the most productive period of their lives, that country caved in, leaving them helpless and confused. That is how we see the parents in the film – deserving pity rather than condemnation. The totalitarian teacher will also come to see her class defy her, showing that no one is afraid of her. Eka and a segment of her generation will emerge from this predicament much stronger and less infantile than their parents. This is where those people who have been leading our country's life in these years have come from: the ministers, businessmen, public opinion makers, and showmen. Such people have written blogs about this film too. It is to their credit that we can say that our country is a country – though, clearly, we do not like it and, of course, should not like it.

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