Stalin’s ghost in perestroika cinema: Repentance

‘Stalin’s ghost in perestroika cinema’ is a series of articles that explores  the ways in which late Soviet cinema engaged with history and past, and in particular focuses on how the Stalinist years were portrayed in perestroika cinema.

>> Read the previous article Fantasy: Mirror For the Hero

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Tengiz Abuladze’s Monaneiba (Repentance, 1984) has a complex and circular narrative that starts as the heroine of the story, Keti Barateli, learns about the death of Varlam Aravidze — a tyrant and dictator who destroyed her family when he was eight, along with many other innocent souls. Keti believes that such a monster as Varlam does not deserve to rest in peace. Before she is caught, she exhumes Varlam’s body and brings it to the garden of his family house three times. During her trial, she proudly remarks: ‘As long as I live Varlam Aravidze will not rest in the ground’, and then the spectator is immersed in Keti’s childhood memories that tell the dark story of Varlam’s inhumane crimes. Repentance stands outs because, in its case, Stalin is implied as a symbolic character, as opposed to the previously discussed films in which Stalin serves merely as a backdrop. The film illustrates the motif of the recurring ghost and metaphorises the endurance of the Stalinist legacy.

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The fact that a film like Repentance was not banned at the stage of the script was due to its geographical location. Georgia was a peripheral country of the USSR and therefore enjoyed a relative degree of autonomy from the centre, thanks to the official policy of support for ethnic cultures. According to this policy, a daily three-hour slot was apportioned for local broadcasting, unsupervised by the central Gosteleradio administration; hence Repentance was initially made for Georgian television. Only in January 1987, Repentance opened for public screenings in Moscow, and Soviet film critic Tatiana Khlopliankina wrote: ‘The release of Repentance (1984) is one of those big events that certify that the order of our life is happily and inevitably changing’, adding that ‘Repentance satisfies our tremendous thirst for truth and our urge to reevaluate the mistakes of the recent past’.

Abuladze’s treatment of the past may be enclosed in a complex narrative structure, but, as precisely noted by Khlopliankina (2008: 53), the film ‘insists on simplicity of evaluations’, as ‘good and evil are polarized and confronted’. Indeed, there are no simply positive characters in the film, but ideal: Ketevan’s parents, Sandro and Nino, are portrayed as guardians of spiritual values (they try to prevent the destruction of the church that is made inevitable by the scientific experiments that are taking place in there). But their honourable intentions are punished — they suffer and die at the hand of Varlam Aravidze, becoming innocent victims of mindless repression.

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On the other hand, Varlam is portrayed as a demonic figure. Thus, one can easily see that the film is abundant with religious symbolism. This becomes most obvious in the sequence of Sandro’s death: the man is dressed in a white loincloth and hanged by his wrists, and it is impossible not to associate him with the Christ figure. Moreover, the moment of his death is underscored by a thunderous explosion, that is the sound of the church being demolished. In turn, Varlam, although being an embodiment of a collective image of the dictator (he has Hitler’s moustache, Mussolini’s physical constitution, Beriia’s glasses and Stalin’s nationality), clearly has satanic nature. Visually, it is most evident in the sequence in which Varlam is shown in the underground, skinning and eating fish in a profane rite of Communion. He is ubiquitous (‘I see everything, I notice everything, so beware of me, be careful’ – he tells to Sandro smiling), has many faces and appears under various guises; he is a brilliant actor and always works hard to present himself in the best light. On the eve of Sandro’s arrest, Varlam and his associates arrive to his family house. Varlam is dressed in the traditional Georgian garments, he brings flowers to Nino and compliments her on her beauty, and her husband on his artistic talents. To entertain the hosts, he sings opera arias and reads from Shakespeare’s sonnets. Soon the ominous guests leave, only to return in a couple of hours, wearing armour that cover their faces, and take Sandro away.

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The film also suggests that any committed evil that is not exposed and admitted is also impossible to conceal, and its legacy perpetuates throughout the next generations. The corpse of Varlam that keeps reappearing in his family garden, similarly to the buried monument of Stalin that comes to the surface in Mirror For the hero and Is Stalin With Us?, is a metaphor for the perpetuity of Stalin’s legacy, the legacy that Evgenii Evtusheko warned against in his poem Nasledniki Stalina (The Heirs of Stalin, 1961). Repentance not only explores the past but it also relates the past to the present and cautions that the legacy of Varlam is still alive and has to be exorcised.

By the end of the film, the audience becomes aware that not only Keti’s memories, but also her attempts to sabotage Varlam’s burial and her trial, took place in her mind. The film ends where it started: Keti learns about Varlam’s death in her kitchen. An old woman knocks on her window and asks: ‘Excuse me, does this street lead to the church?’, to which Keti replies: ‘No, this is Varlam street and it doesn’t lead to the church’. The woman leaves saying: ‘Why having a street that doesn’t lead to the church?’. The episode suggests that Keti herself, being a victim of Varlam’s cruelty, chooses not to risk her life confronting the murderous past and “rebuilding the church” her father died for, thus she is also responsible for the endurance of Varlam’s legacy.

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Due to its complex narrative strategy — blurring the boundaries between dreams, memories and reality — Repentance acquires phantasmagoric quality. However, the authorial intent was not to distract the viewer’s attention from reality. On the contrary, Repentance is the attempt to ‘reveal the truth about the epoch, that by its official mendacity, institutionalized hypocrisy, delusions of grandeur, secret trials, and absurd executions now appears to be more “phantasmagoric” than any fiction’ (Lawton, 2002: 170) . The film presents a remarkable history of the mentalities of the Stalin Terror and effectively conveys the atmosphere of surrealistic disassociation from reality, characteristic of this historical period.

>> Read the Afterword

*Khlopliankina, Tatiana. 2008. ‘On the road that leads to the truth’, in Michael Brashinsky and Andrew Horton (eds). Russian Critics on the Cinema of Glasnost (Camdridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 51–53
Lawton, Anna. 2002. Before the Fall: Soviet Cinema in the Gorbachev Years (Philadelphia: Xlibris)