(Depuis qu'Otar est parti...)

Directed by Julie Bertucelli. France/Belgium. 2003.

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A French-Belgian co-production, spoken in a blend of Georgian, Russian and French, first-time director Julie Bertucelli's Since Otar Left centres on the lives of three generations of women. An elderly grandmother Eka (Esther Gorintin) lives with her daughter Marina (Nino Khomassouridze) and young granddaughter Ada (Dinara Droukarova) in Tblisi in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Conditions are hard in Tblisi and Marina has been forced to sell wares at the local market in spite of her engineering degree. Nothing seems to work properly, the power goes out, phone calls are cut off and Eka longs to recapture life as it was under Joseph Stalin. 

Things have not been the same since Eka's beloved son Otar, a doctor, left for France two years ago. Unable to practice medicine legally, Otar (whom we never meet) has had to accept construction work and Eka's life revolves around his periodic letters and phone calls. Thirty minutes into the film we learn some distressing news about Otar. Marina and Ada, fearful of how it will affect Eka, withhold the information, pursuing an elaborate scheme of deception. They forge his letters and make up excuses why he has not called. Everything works well for a time but things begin to unravel when Eka, having not spoken to Otar in seven months, sells her esteemed collection of French literature to raise money to travel to Paris in an attempt to find Otar. When Marina and Ada decide to go with Eka, an adventure awaits them as the film veers off in an unexpected direction.

The performances of the three women are remarkable and Ms. Gorintin does an admirable job of conveying a stoop-shouldered, sentimental old woman, yet her character is a doddering stereotype, too typical of the way old people are portrayed in films. A film about generational conflicts and the problems of the elderly is welcome but Ms. Bertucelli does not explore these issues in any depth and the plot implausibilities are numerous. Marina forges Otar's letters but Eka never checks the postmark. Otar fails to telephone for seven months, yet Eka only has a "hint" that something might be wrong. The family allows Eka to sell her prized possession without trying to ascertain the purpose of her actions, and there are many others. Since Otar Left won the Critics Week Grand Prize at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival and the Cesar Award for Best First Work but I found it contrived and unconvincing, content with ersatz warmth, "colourful" ethnic characters, and overly literate dialogue that does not ring true.


Howard Schumann
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