At an International Cinema lecture, David Hart, a professor of Russian, spoke about Georgian film Repentance and the climate of life in the USSR.
PROVO, Utah (January 12, 2015)—The first screening of the film Repentance took place in Moscow in 1987, three years after the film was completed. Rich with religious, moral and political symbolism, Repentance was too subversive for immediate screening in the atheistic, authoritative USSR of 1984, but Mikhail Gorbachev’s looser political atmosphere made way for the later release of the film. As a professor studying in Moscow, David Hart, BYU Russian faculty, sat in one of the initial screenings. As the film ended, the audience was paralyzed in astounded silence. “People were blown away by what they had seen,” said Hart. “After so many years of lies, somebody was telling the truth.” One Russian journalist described the moment as “a momentary hush, and then wild applause broke out.”
What would happen, Hart began, if you combined Joseph Stalin, the totalitarian dictator of the Soviet Union; Adolf Hitler, the man who gave us WWII and the Holocaust; Benito Mussolini, a great supporter of Hitler and a contributor to WWII; and Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the secret police under Stalin?
“You would get Varlam Aravidze,” said Hart, naming the central character in Repentance. Dissecting photos of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and Beria – noting their hairlines, mustaches, rimless glasses, black shirts, and leather straps – viewers recognize Varlam Aravidze, a fictional character who is the mayor of a small Georgian town, as the symbolic reincarnation of these dictators. “He is the representation of the evil of total power,” Hart said. “He is a dictatorial leader who will stop at nothing to have people bend to his will.”
Aravidze (which means in Georgian “no man”) was created by Georgian director/writer Tengiz Abuladze to represent evil in authority, and Repentance illustrates that those who typically suffer from evil are common, innocent people interested in living a peaceful life.
The film is in Georgian, with some Russian phrases. Only Aravidze speaks the Russian phrases, and he uses the exact words that Stalin spoke.
“You will find that, indeed, there’s nothing normal or ordinary about this movie,” said Hart. The film begins with a woman making cakes in the shape of churches when she learns that Aravidze is dead. A man sits by her, eating the cakes, ripping steeples off and eating the churches. Throughout the film, someone keeps digging up Aravidze. “They won’t let him stay in the ground,” said Hart, “and they finally arrest the corpse.”
When authorities find the person who had been digging up Aravidze’s body, Ketevan Barateli, she has a series of flashbacks that culminate in her outburst: “Aravidze is not dead, as long as you defend him!”
“Repentance is about the continuity of evil,” said Hart. Through the flashbacks of the woman who was arrested for digging up Aravidze’s corpse, the film openly exposes Aravidze’s Stalin-like terror. Writers Josephine Woll and Denise J. Youngblood from Repentance: The Film Companion said: “There is literally nothing that happens in Repentance, however bizarre, that did not happen hundreds of thousands, even millions, of times from 1928 to 1953.”
In reality, what happened in the Soviet Union is still happening all over the world, said Hart. Repentance pushes viewers to confront and recognize the evils of the past and forsake them.
For more information on International Cinema films and lectures, visit their website.
—Danielle Chelom Leavitt (BA Russian/Women Studies, ’15)