The director Otar Iosseliani, poetry made image, has died

Photo of author

By John

The news that he passed away at the age of 89 comes from his native country, Georgia, relaunched by «Pravda», but actually communicated by a friend on Telegram Otar Iosseliani, one of the greatest voices of poetry made image, a director who the world of cinema venerated as one of its greatest masters. It is actually not unexpected news because for years Iosseliani’s poor health had limited his activity and contacts with the world, especially after the death a year ago of his beloved partner (and his producer) Martine Marignac. But it is still a painful loss, especially for all those who did not know his warm humanity, his acute vision of the world, the breath of freedom – long censored – that runs through every sequence of his films. Born in Tbilisi, Georgia on 2 February 1934, passionate about mathematics since childhood, he had found its expressive form in music, understood as the art of harmony capable of regulating the world and emotions according to rigid compositional principles. Supported by his parents, he enrolled at the conservatory, obtaining a diploma in piano, composition and orchestral conducting.

In the Soviet Union of the 1960s, the center of gravity of culture and innovation was Moscow and it was here that Otar moved to study mathematics at university: however, he abandoned it for the VCIK directing school where he graduated in 1961. He he already had a handful of short films behind him, made first by himself and then as school essays, but censorship struck his first real work (“Aprile”, 1961) and due to discouragement he left his passion for years, working as a worker and then on cargo ships. In 1965, surprisingly, he obtained funding for his first feature film and his «The Fall of the Leaves» (1966) won the critics’ prize at the Cannes festival. Suddenly even at home they noticed him and he was granted a second opportunity: in 1970 with «Once upon a time there was a singing blackbird» he returned to Cannes and achieved the status of a powerful and original voice in which the constituent elements of his cinema (nature, poetry, chance, solitude) are combined with an elegiac vision of his land. On the subsequent «Pastorale» (1975) the ax of censorship fell again because the work was not considered aligned with Soviet aesthetics and the film disappeared for years in the archives, appearing invisible despite the efforts of international critics, sensitive to its human isolation and political. Otar then decides to make a painful break from his roots, emigrates to France, and asks for new citizenship. But already in the first group of his works – among the most inspired – it is easy to perceive a rigorous idea of ​​cinema that bans all forms of psychologism, rejects the close-up seen as an intrusion into people’s private feelings, designs the “form” of the image as a mathematical calculation in which to reflect a vision of the world. «

I am inspired by the third principle of thermodynamics – he said – according to which nature tends inexorably towards disorder, driven by the attraction of entropy which generates chance, irregularity and, in the end, dissolution. In nature, this occurs according to very slow changes, but the human race dramatically accelerates the movement, tending to annihilate itself towards the zero point of survival.” It is a pessimistic and painful vision in which, however, the director-poet sees lights of hope in the acceptance of the case, in the brotherhood of simple individuals, in the small pleasures, such as wine and music, which lead us to enjoy the “here and now”. Encouraged by the new air he senses around him in Paris, Iosseliani gets back to work thanks to the support of television and independent producers who believe in his wandering cinema, drawn on paper before with words (“my real screenplay is always the storyboard”), until with the collaboration of the great screenwriter Gerard Brach, he reappeared on the international stage with «The Favorites of the Moon» in 1985. The story of a set of dishes that spans two centuries, from the French Revolution to the present day, passing from hand to hand according to an apparent randomness, it is worth the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and is distributed throughout the world also thanks to co-production with Italy. He will return here in 1988 with the documentary «A small monastery in Tuscany», while he is already preparing the next «A fire seen from afar».

By now his smiling and anarchic poetics is a trademark reaffirmed by the success of «Butterfly Hunt» in 1992. A great drinker, capable of subdued ironies tinged with a profound solitude, always ready to share his table for memorable stories about his Georgia, Iosseliani would later sign another seven films including the enchanting «Goodbye mainland», «Monday morning» (Silver Bear at the Berlinale) up to the last «Chant d’hiver» of 2015. His unmistakable ironic, light, refined style always resorts to a minimalist of dialogues and narrative and psychological construction, in favor of the meticulous observation of behaviors and their consequences. Like a puppet master, Otar unraveled the threads of ever-changing protagonists, often non-professional actors, led into events that apparently have no relation to each other. It is a style that reminds the spectator of Tati and Chaplin with whom he shares that ineffable magic of the smile cloaked in melancholic contemplation of the misfortunes of the human being, destined – perhaps despite himself – to “drink his own glass to the bottom”. In 2013 the Locarno Film Festival awarded him the Pardo d’onore, while the San Sebastian and Buenos Aires festivals have dedicated large retrospectives to him over the years. With him certainly leaves a powerful voice of Georgian cinema, but above all the universal voice of a poet who told his life like an orchestra conductor.