A tremendous achievement of Soviet cinema, very much in the style of silent Soviet cinema, Father of a Soldier (Georgian title: Djariskatsis mama*; Russian title: Otyets soldata) is a humanistic tragicomedy about war. Therefore, it may also have been influenced by Mario Monicelli’s The Great War (1959), which shared the Golden Lion of St. Mark at Venice with a far less antic film about war, Roberto Rossellini’s General della Rovere (1959). Written by Suliko Zhgenti and directed by Rezo Chkheidze, two names with which I am unfamiliar, Father of a Soldier is a behavorial comedy in the midst of combat; it is warm, humorous, humane, piercing. Its heart is keyed to that of its protagonist, Georgy Makharashvili, an aging Georgian farmer who ventures beyond his rural village in search of his son, Goderdzi, a tankman and army lieutenant during World War II who has written home that he has been wounded. Goderdzi’s mother tells her husband just before his departure: Do not come back without our son! The man’s odyssey takes him into battle, into war’s heart of darkness. Along the way, he also dons a uniform to become a soldier—and a good thing, too; for it is in Berlin, at its fall, that he reunites with his son. Briefly. Goderdzi, freshly wounded, dies with Georgy by his side.
It is 1945. By truck, by barge, by donkey-drawn cart, by train, by foot, this humble, friendly, curious man makes his journey. Initially, Georgy reaches the hospital in Dubovo from which his son wrote. Alas, the boy has already been sent back to fight the Germans. After Georgy himself enlists in the Red Army, because of his age he is assigned to a post supervising women in their cleaning and cooking. He balks; such a detail is unhelpful to him. He needs to fight in order to achieve a sense of sharing his son’s ordeal, of unburdening his son, to whatever extent possible, heart to heart across the distance dividing them. This is too complex an emotional issue for Georgy to express in his rudimentary Russian, but he nevertheless succeeds in conveying the paternal imperative motivating him. The Russian military bends to this Georgian peasant’s imperative. With other soldiers Georgy crosses the Soviet border and presses onward to Berlin. Along the way he loses comrades, including a boy who might have been his son, whom he even calls “son” at one point—a harbinger of the momumental loss to come. Along the way: Father of a Soldier is a film along the way.
Along the way, this peasant rues how war is scarring the Soviet land. In Germany, he stops young Soviet soldiers and chastises them for directing the course of their tanks over a German vineyard. His love of the land isn’t nationalistic; it is the perspective of a lifelong farmer who has drawn his strength and his sustenance from the land—and of a father who dearly hopes that the strength that his son has drawn from the land is sustaining him now. (The film opens with Georgy on his farmland, identifying him with it.) This latter association of feelings has the force of a tidal wave. Think how often we have been subjected to sentimental films about parental love—films that manipulate our familiar emotions. Father of a Soldier, on the other hand, honors the complexity of human emotions, and we may even find it a wee bit chastising that the film locates its complex emotional associations in a soul so much “simpler” than ourselves. This is the sort of film that sweeps away all sorts of prejudices, including those we may have been toting without realizing it.
In line with this is the film’s subversive subtext, which I find delicious. Georgy’s trek across Soviet land, identifying him with this land, reminds us that he is Soviet; but he is not Russian, but Georgian, as his name itself constantly reminds us, and as his interactions with Russians also remind us. Politically, Russia dominates and controls the nation; ethnic republics have the paradoxical status of being quasi-satellites within the nation’s borders. Yet it is Georgy Makharashvili who, by film’s end, has accumulated the emotional and iconographic stature of the Soviet soul. Adding to the irony is Georgy’s vague resemblance to another man from Georgia—the leader of the Soviet nation at the time the film is set. Great stuff, this.
Visually, the film is enthralling, even as it resorts to certain clichés. The film has been shot in stark, compelling black and white. (Archil Filipashvili, Levan Namgalashvili and Lev Sukhov are the splendid cinematographers.) We recognize Chkheidze’s visual style from the glory days of Soviet cinema—the silent period. For instance, there are low-hung, upwardly tilted closeups of “the father of a soldier” that show humanity mediating between the earth and the eternity of sky, between Soviet reality and (poetically) Soviet destiny. (Another wonderful shot, in combat, again with a low-hung, upwardly tilted camera, shows three hands discharging guns against the sky, and the same camera angle later pictures the sign indicating the Soviet border.) It is precisely because of the chiding-Russian subtext I have mentioned, however, that even such familiarly gorgeous shots blossom into new life in the context that Chkheidze has devised. Chkheidze has applied irony to them. By taking us back to an earlier Soviet Union, the familiar shots now imply the poetic national destiny (encapsulated in almost mystical shots in silent films) that in the meantime the Soviet nation has failed to achieve. (Thus Chkheidze interrelates three different time periods, including the present, playing them off one another.) There is an extraordinary passage in the film that likewise draws upon the fierce immensity of silent Soviet filmmaking: at night, a train of tanks looming phantasmagorically.
Indeed, all of the film’s elements finely mesh. This includes the subdued, minimalist score by Sulkhan Tsintsadze. Music can be such a pain and a distraction in a serious film, but here it becomes part of the poignant fabric of the film.
Without doubt, Father of a Soldier is a powerful piece of work, even if it falls short of being a masterpiece. (Two Soviet films about war that are masterpieces: Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s 1929 Arsenal and Elem Klimov’s 1985 Come and See.) I wish I could credit some of its terrific supporting performances, but the cast lists I find do not correlate the names of actors to characters in the film. Sergo Zaqariadze gives a titanic performance in the lead role, winning the best actor prize at the Moscow International Film Festival. The humanity of his contribution is unassailable.
The Russian Film Council has released a DVD of this great film.
* It would be interesting to have a translation of this Georgian title.
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