PASTORALI (Otar Iosseliani, 1976)

Be no longer a Chaos, but a World, or even Worldkin. Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it, in God’s name! ’Tis the utmost thou hast in thee: out with it, then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called Today; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work. — Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, German Professor of Things in General

I have seen three earlier films of his (April, 1961; Falling Leaves, 1968; Once Sung a Thrush, 1970), but the great Georgian film artist Otar Iosseliani’s first truly signature work is Pastorali. Typically, Pastorali ran afoul of Soviet complaints and censorship, and by the time it saw the light of public showings Iosseliani had already fled to France, where he currently resides. (He returned home, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to make the remarkable 1996 Brigands, Chapter VII.) Otar Mekhrishvili and Revaz Inanishvili co-authored the script of his that Iosseliani brilliantly directed.

Pastorali opens in the city—Iosseliani’s own Tbilisi, in fact—where arrangements are being made for a string quartet to spend the summer in the country. The reason? As usual, Iosseliani doesn’t bother us (or himself) with details of plot. Who can say why the four young musicians—two guys, two gals—leave the city, civilization as they know it, for a half-dozen fortnights. When they arrive at their arranged lodgings, at the home of kolhozniks, they rehearse, so perhaps they left Tbilisi for what they (inaccurately) anticipated would be the sheer quiet and tranquility of a rural setting. Perhaps they desired to enrich their classical reflexes by immersing themselves in the folk musical traditions that prevail in farm country. While there, they end up becoming cultural anthropologists by recording the kolhozniks’ singing. But we have no way of knowing, because Iosseliani doesn’t tell us, whether doing this was a motive for their visit or something that came to them once, there, they had been swept up by the enchantment of the local music. And, of course, Iosseliani is right not to tell us. This is a film about what people do, not about why they do it.

What people do in this film is work. Only once have I seen a film in which people do so much work, of so many different kinds. (The other occasion: Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, 1928.) Oh, the village men quarrel a bit (well, a lot, then), and there is a communal feast replete with song and spirits; but, mostly, the collective farmers and their womenfolk work—as, mostly, do their guests from Tbilisi. Iosseliani doesn’t suffocate us with plot, but his film richly details the work that the characters do.

A good deal of the labor that the film shows is farm work: chopping this, hauling that, shepherding animals, milking a cow, and so on. Perhaps the Soviet authorities, still angling to promote the fantasy of a workers’ paradise, were upset by Iosseliani’s implicit exposure of the fact that, in this “socialist” society, kolhozniks competed with one another for more or less income based on the amount they produce—although by this time the state had instituted income guarantees, and more and more farmers worked their own plots rather than state-owned land. (In the 1990s, after the Soviet Union’s collapse, nearly 44% of farms throughout the nation and its Eastern bloc satellites chose to remain state-owned rather than becoming privatized.) But I digress from my own work here. When the four musicians from the city arrive, one of them kicks aside a bottle that had been upright in the road. Later, in this wondrous comedy that’s chock-full of Tatiesque moments, a farmer lugging a hill of hay so huge that it completely conceals his or her identity pauses at the spot in order to reset the kicked bottle into an upright position—if you will, work inside other work. (It is also a lovely human moment interrupting what might otherwise seem labor akin to animal labor.) The women are shown endlessly engaged in cooking and housecleaning. Moreover, activities that we normally do not consider work impress us as such in the context of working that the film provides. For instance, a teenaged daughter in the family that is hosting the musicians takes an immediate shine to the younger male in the quartet. We see her grooming her hair while looking into a mirror so she can look her best, in hopes of catching his attention. Her intentness, her earnestness, her concentration as she goes about this ordinary task converts it into pressing work. It’s a revelatory moment.

As is his delightful wont, Iosseliani has fashioned a mostly silent film. (It is also in black and white, and beautifully cinematographed by Abessalom Maisuradze.) There is minimal dialogue. The sounds we hear in the film are mainly those of musical instruments and voices in song, and the squawking, mooing, oinking, barking and chattering of all kinds of animals—farm, domestic and wild. There are wonderful shots of these animals. In an early one, a herd of pigs of all sizes move along, away from the camera. It is a very funny shot. Later, when a skinned pig is roasted for a feast, the discretion of the camera placement, retroactively, lends unexpected poignancy to the earlier shot. Another shot features a large herd of sheep crossing a road. A bus disturbs the orderly procession of part of the herd up ahead, while in the same shot another part of the herd, closer to the camera, remains uniformly intact. The image is visually complex and, like so much of this film, it delights. We cannot help but relate the two different forms in which the party of sheep appears to forms of humanity as they also appear in the film: lives structured and controlled by the work they must attend to, and boisterous lives bursting out of this structure and control.

This is also a film of faces, in which Iosseliani directs his camera to find what is distinctive in the face of each ordinary person. Iosseliani shows great affection for all his characters, who come in all ages, sizes and shapes. Concerning the musicians, Pastorali avoids “fish-out-of-water” material; neither city nor country is used to give the other a comical beating. The guests are treated graciously and courteously by the villagers, and they remain guests; there’s no sentimental nonsense here, where these four become new members of an extended country family. One guest mingles, giving the teenaged girl a piano lesson that draws from her an unexpected warm smile; another refuses to socialize on account of the hosts’ “cheap wine.” The latter remark, along with the bottle-kicking incident, helps underscore the different worlds to which these two groups of people belong, and this in turn helps spare the conclusion, with the musicians back in Tbilisi, of a bogus feeling of regret for having left behind them some idyllic summer. Pastorali sticks to reality and condescends to no one, including us the audience.

I am reminded of Tennyson’s Ulysses: “He works his work; I, mine.”

But then what doesn’t remind me of Tennyson’s Ulysses?

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