‘In Bloom’: Coming of age in post-Soviet Georgia, gun in hand

Teen angst, Tbilisi 1992: Mariam Bokeria as Natia. © Copyright Big World Pictures.

As a feature film from Georgia getting distributed in the U.S., In Bloom is likely to be a novelty even for arthouse habitués. Set in the spring of 1992, a year after Georgia declared independence from the quickly dissolving Soviet Union, In Bloom is an indelible though hardly charming portrait of the capital of Tbilisi at that moment. The movie works in close-up as a character study of two 14-year-old girls, but also as a wider window on their society — it′s a fiction that can almost stand as an ethnographic film.

The setting of Tbilisi feels both mundane and exotic. The run-down, Soviet-era public buildings are an eyesore that anyone familiar with Eastern Europe will recognize. But other aspects of this culture feel novel, at least in the context of a commercial release that I saw in an L.A. movie theater: for starters, the Georgian language, as spoken and seen on the signs everywhere, as well as — most crucial — the customs of a society that looks more or less mid-to-late 20th century, but which is still plagued by a more clannish, vendetta-prone mindset, i.e., old-school in the worst possible way.

(I couldn’t help wondering how much of the uniquely regional character of Tbilisi circa 1992, as shown on screen here, has since been overwhelmed by a rush of more ‘Western’ advertising and commerce. The only hint of Western pop culture in the lives of the film’s adolescents is a mention of Jackie Chan movies.*)

Written and co-directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili, who drew upon her memories of growing up in Tbilisi during the ′90s, In Bloom follows two 14-year-old girls, smart, wary Eka (Lika Babluani), and her more sociable best friend Natia (Mariam Bokeria), who is on the verge of blossoming into a willowy beauty.

Mariam Bokeria and Lika Babluani had never acted, and never met, prior to being cast in IN BLOOM; you'd never know it from the film. Copyright Big World Productions.

Mariam Bokeria and Lika Babluani had never acted, and never met, prior to being cast in IN BLOOM; you’d never know it from the film. © Copyright Big World Pictures.

That Natia is starting to draw male attention wherever she goes is no blessing. One of the most adroit aspects of the storytelling here is that a viewer unfamiliar with this culture gradually comes to realize, without the script having to spell it out, that all the girls we see — Natia and Eka, their classmates, their older sisters and their friends — are likely to be married and pregnant before they′re out of their teens. It’s a depressing thought: marriage might offer a girl the promise of escaping the cramped, dingy public-housing apartment she shares with her parents — but only for an identical flat with her new husband and in-laws.

In Bloom was shot by Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu, whose resume includes The Death of Mister Lazarescu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and Beyond the Hills; the highest level of moviemaking artistry. But unlike the fever-dream flamboyance of, say, Benoît Debie, the DP on Enter the Void and Spring Breakers, Mutu’s is an artistry that conceals art. His lens captures the world in real time, in a way that feels stringent rather than passive, with wide shots on location (you certainly aren’t ever made aware of sets in the films Mutu shoots), the camera unblinking as it observes the action from a remove.

Lika Babluani, Marian Bokeria. © Copyright Big World Pictures.

The wide shots that Mutu, Ekvtimishvili and Gross set up in In Bloom invite the viewer to study the Tbilisi locations. These are settings that speak the proverbial volumes about the dynamics of this society: Looking at the public housing and the school where much of the movie takes place, you might assume an armed conflict had raged in the heart of the city some years earlier, and the government coffers had always been too depleted to do much renovating. In fact there′s a war going on now, off screen, just over the border with the separatists in Abkhazia. (For Georgia the conflict is a civil war, for Abkhazia, a war of independence, backed by Russia.)

Springtime in Tbilisi. Copyright Big World Productions.

Springtime in Tbilisi. © Copyright Big World Productions.

In Bloom alludes to the war indirectly: on a news broadcast, in snippets of adult conversations, and more obliquely when a group of armed men whom no one dares question barges into a bread line to commandeer a huge supply of bread for themselves. But the war colors everything we see. It explains the absence of male authority figures in Eka and Natia’s lives: every adult male who is not too old, too drunk or too shiftless appears to have left Tbilisi to join the fighting. Diminutive Eka has to fend for herself in that swarming public bread line to get bread for her family; the queue could give way to a riot at any moment, yet the police are conspicuously absent.

In the void left behind by that absent authority, grey markets and petty criminality flourish. On her way home from school, Eka is routinely menaced by a pipsqueak thug and his hulking dimwit sidekick; the boys′ taunts suggest they’re goading themselves into committing an act of violence just so they can feel grown up.

On her own way home, Natia is pursued by a 20-ish suitor, Kote (Zurab Gogaladze), who might work as a mechanic but whose real identity comes from the sullen gang of toughs he hangs out with. Natia′s other suitor Lado (Data Zokareishvili) would seem far more promising; his immaculate dress shirt alone qualifies him as a Prince Charming in this context. Yet the romantic flourishes with which he woos Natia are perhaps too precious, almost deluded, for this environment.

For Natia and Eka live in a world that is a nightmare of male aggression. Rage is the current that powers this society: the adults have nowhere to channel their bitterness and frustration, so it at all gets directed into their homes, at the most powerless members of the pecking order.

The drama of In Bloom crystallizes around a single handgun — the gun that Lado gives to Natia as a romantic gesture, and which she, horribly enough, perceives as such. The most telling commentary about this environment may be the way that Natia and Eka initially regard possessing a gun as life transforming, a signifier of status like nothing else they know. The gun’s appearance instantly brings a certain famous Chekhovian dictum to mind; the viewer can′t help but worry about when the weapon will be fired, by whom and at whom.

Lika Babluani. © Copyright Big World Pictures.

But the movie′s defining virtue is the way it pointedly subverts our expectations here: a lone 14-year-old girl is going to rewrite the script this society has handed her. At a raucous wedding ceremony, Eka surprises everyone by taking over the dance floor to perform a traditional dance — a wonderful moment, which the filmmakers hold in a long take. It′s a dramatic act of self-assertion for Eka, pivotal for what follows, yet we understand that she has to step forward like this because she’s at risk of dying inside.

What might be most satisfying about the last few scenes of In Bloom is the way the movie outwits the conventions of what might be termed miserabilist cinema. I can easily imagine a more brutal, fatalistic version of this story helmed by a male director, one that culminates in an eye-for-an-eye downward spiral. But while Georgia′s conflict with Abkhazia would flare up again, most dramatically in 2008, In Bloom nevertheless ends on a note of subtle optimism. Without feeling forced or too pat, the movie suggests a dreary cycle of violence can be broken, and that a clear-eyed girl will be the one to do it.

In case you were wondering what the Georgian language looks like...

In case you were wondering what the Georgian poster looks like…

In Bloom will open in further cities across the U.S. throughout Spring 2014. Click here for dates and locations.

You can watch the subtitled trailer for In Bloom below:

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