Otar Iosseliani obituary: Georgian director of inimitable, idiosyncratic fables

Iosseliani, who has died aged 89, made gently absurdist parables in which people and places, camaraderie and tradition, take precedence over conventional storytelling.

19 December 2023

By Geoff Andrew

Otar Iosseliani © Photo preserved by the BFI National Archive

With the death of the Paris-based Georgian filmmaker Otar Iosseliani, the cinema has lost one of its most idiosyncratic and uncompromisingly independent artists.

Born in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in 1934, Iosseliani studied composing, conducting and piano at the State Conservatoire before embarking on a mathematics degree at the University of Moscow. After two years, he switched to studying filmmaking at VGIK, where he was taught by earlier Soviet filmmakers, including Alexander Dovzhenko. He seemed to have little time for Soviet film theory or montage, however, and his 1961 featurette April was refused a release due to its ‘excessive formalism’. A spell working in factories and on fishing boats ensued until 1966, when his first full-length feature, Falling Leaves, fared no better with the authorities – unsurprisingly, given that it centred on an idealistic worker at a wine collective in conflict with corrupt superiors. Still, it picked up a FIPRESCI prize after playing in the 1968 Cannes Critics’ Week, the first of Iosseliani’s many awards at the major European festivals.

There Once Was a Singing Blackbird (1970)

His next two films, There Once Was a Singing Blackbird (1970) and Pastorale (1975), not only echoed his enduring interest in music by focusing on classical musicians but also showed how little his increasingly eccentric approach to narrative had to do with conventional cinematic storytelling methods. Dramatic plotting seemed not to interest him; instead, the focus was on people and places, on sound (rather than dialogue, which would become ever more sparse), on movement, gesture and rhythm. The lack of any explicit ‘message’ or even story clearly confounded Moscow, but the sense that the films were probably somehow anti-authorities, anti-conformism, even anti-work ensured that Pastorale was not allowed to be screened in the West until 1982, the year when Iosseliani decided enough was enough and left to live in Paris.

Thereafter, starting with The Favourites of the Moon (1984), his films were made mainly in France, though he also filmed in Senegal (And Then There Was Light, 1989) and Georgia (parts of Brigands, 1996, and Chantrapas, 2010). That said, regardless of geographical setting, the films always felt as if they were part of a distinctive Iosselianian universe: even the 1983 TV documentary Euzkadi Summer 1982, about Basque sheep farmers taking their flocks to mountain pastures, sounds strong echoes of his earlier Georgian works with its focus on landscape, song, camaraderie, drink and traditional rural rituals.

Indeed, Iosseliani’s work remained remarkably consistent throughout his career. In terms of narrative, they give the impression of being fables, parables or allegories, the precise meaning of which it is usually difficult to define; the subtle blend of realism and low-key surrealism (he was a great admirer of Jean Vigo), the gentle absurdist humour and the leisurely pace are repeatedly applied to microcosms of society where age-old tradition seems to be threatened by the ways of the modern world. Iosseliani doesn’t take sides so much as stand back to observe, often with a wry affection, the failings of both.

Gardens in Autumn (2006)

In films like Farewell, Home Sweet Home (1999), Monday Morning (2002) and Gardens in Autumn (2006, in which Michel Piccoli was gloriously cast as the protagonist’s dowager mother), he clearly sympathises with his characters’ desires to break free of stultifying routine, of the constraints of responsibility, of the burdens of work and possessions (they usually take refuge in travel, alcohol and communal singing), but he remains very aware of the effects such actions might have on the lives of others. Intriguingly, in each of those last three titles mentioned, he played a feckless, indolent, sozzled aristocrat, vainly trying to hang on to memories – possibly delusional – of better times.

It is clear from these fables that Iosseliani valued highly the need to be true to oneself; it is clear, too, in the immediately distinctive style of his films, with their delicacy of tone, their meandering narratives, their non-professional actors, long takes, fluid camera movements and distaste for direct statements of any kind. (One might liken his work, in certain respects, to Tati, Keaton, Vigo, even Buñuel, but in the end it feels utterly unique.) To interview Iosseliani was not so dissimilar from watching his films; one needed patience as he responded, quietly, slowly and by a bizarrely zigzagging route that took in all manner of seemingly irrelevant digressions, until finally, usually after many minutes, he would arrive as if by magic back at the point you had originally asked him about, pulling the proverbial rabbit out of the hat to reveal that it was exactly the rabbit you had been hoping to see, after all.

My own several encounters with Otar delivered a memorably colourful character. He was always perfectly pleasant to me, his manners exemplary to the point of fastidiousness, though I’m reliably informed that he was also someone who ‘didn’t suffer fools’, and could display withering displeasure, especially if he’d had a drink too many. I don’t think I ever saw him without a drink – he would down a tumbler of vodka in one, without so much as a blink – and he once regaled me, lip faintly curled in contempt, with a lengthy anecdote demonstrating why Russians were vastly inferior imbibers to the Georgians.

When I asked him about his Basque film (which I hadn’t at that point seen), he kindly invited me to visit him at home when I was next in Paris; he would screen it for me, and perhaps we could have lunch. A little later I mentioned this to a French friend who knew Otar of old. “Don’t go,” he warned. “He’s a lovely man, and I know you like a glass of wine, but if you value your health, don’t go.” I didn’t.

But Iosseliani would go on to make several more films, and lived to the age of 89. An extraordinary man.

  • Otar Iosseliani, 2 February 1934 to 17 December 2023
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