A delightful comedy about Georgian wine drowning in Soviet bureaucracy: “Falling Leaves” at the Tbilisi International Film Festival4 min read
Tbilisi International Film Festival held a special screening of the Soviet-Georgian classic Falling Leaves (Giorgobistve, or November, 1966) by Otar Iosseliani, whom the festival awarded the Honorary Prometheus prize. His feature-length debut, the film was unlike anything else made in Georgia at the time and even ‘enjoyed’ a brief ban by the authorities. However, it was also screened at Cannes in 1968, where it won the FIPRESCI prize and can now be experienced anew thanks to its recent restoration. Falling Leaves is a rare phenomenon in the Soviet film culture at large, as it is playful, joyous and subversive all at the same time, bursting with youthful energy and love for Georgian (wine) tradition.
The film starts with a gorgeous montage of the hustle and bustle of the November harvest, people collecting grapes, crushing them, pouring juices to qvevris (underground vessels where the buried wine is left to mature) and making chacha, a pomace brandy. The sequence is accompanied by Georgian folk music, but the images and sounds are layered in a fresh, unabashedly New Wave-like way, feeling less like an observation and more like a celebration. The montage culminates when the ready wine is eventually unearthed and supras (traditional banquets filled with wine and toasts) proceed. However, this is the last we’ll see of rural Georgia, as the film’s setting switches to Tbilisi, where there is little space for traditions.
The rest of the film follows Niko (Ramaz Giorgobiani), a rather inexperienced lad, as he and his friend Otari (Gogi Kharabadze) start a new job in a winery. Niko does not seem as shrewd or career-oriented as Otari, but both become lab technicians and Niko befriends older vintners as they go gallivanting about town. There is also Marine (Marina Kartsivadze), one of the very few female employees in the winery – everyone has their eyes upon her, including Niko and Otari, but more on her later. The winery is filled with memorable characters, like the boss who seems to spend his work days playing billiards in his office, and while Otari is intent to preserve his upper place in the workplace hierarchy, Niko blends into the life of the winery in no time.
Falling Leaves does not only focus on the winery, however, as it meanderingly captures amusing snapshots of leisure in Tbilisi. I want to say it feels jazzy, but instead of jazz the film’s soundtrack is filled with lovely Georgian songs and classical music. The narrative progression seems almost beside the point as the film exudes playfulness even at its most dramatic moments, but conflict does exist. One barrel of wine in the winery is defective, but the authorities want to bottle it anyway in order to meet their five-year plan. Niko, unlike Otari, refuses to sign the authorisation of this task and is forced to face the bitter reality of Soviet bureaucratic and industrial corruption.
Niko’s further disillusionment comes from the failed courtship of Marine, who has more suitors than fingers but gives them all a cold shoulder. The depiction of ridiculous, ceaseless pursuits of her is ahead of most New Wave films and it sharply pokes fun at men’s self-involvement and short-sightedness. To witness Marine prioritise her female friends and push the men (quite literally) into the background continues to feel novel. At least one of the suitors seems to have nothing better to do but wait around, aggressively but aimlessly, for Marine’s attention, a sort of inversion of Hollywood’s representation of female characters of the time. His machismo gets him nowhere, too, and is played for laughs in the film.
Above all, the restoration of Falling Leaves allows us to appreciate the wonderful black-and-white imagery and its rich textures. Tbilisi of the ’60s shines on the screen, especially through its architecture. It is ridiculous, but somehow fitting, that the film was shelved almost immediately after its original release. As Iosseliani said in an interview, there was a huge public interest in the picture as it was so different from any ‘orthodox’ Soviet film. Unfortunately, this interest stretched to the local authorities, who grew immediately suspicious. The film came out a year before the Soviet Union’s 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, the spoiled wine barrel had No. 49 painted on it, and the wine itself was red (!). “Some stupid symbolism,” in Iosseliani’s words, was enough for the film to be banned in Georgia. The absurdity of the Soviet machine depicted in Falling Leaves was echoed in real life – how grateful we should be to enjoy this film so freely.