The elderly woman's choice of cake is brought to the table she shares with a hard, middle-aged woman and a college-age girl. The old woman savors the cake, but stops in disbelief when the middle-aged woman helps herself. She catches the old woman's stare and slams down her fork in pique. The younger girl shrugs slightly, as if she sees such small dramas between the two repeatedly. This wordless opening marvelously sets up what we will learn for sure in the next few scenes: Here are three generations of women co-existing, somewhat uneasily but with certain familiarity.
The three women share a run-down apartment in Tbilisi, the distressed capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Eka is the strong-willed matriarch who dotes on her beloved son, Otar, a doctor who has relocated to Paris where he works as an undocumented laborer. She harbors a romantic affection for all things French, but also remains steadfast that life functioned better under Stalin. Esther Gorintin, a 90-year-old Pole who began her acting career at age 85, is tremendous as the deceptively fragile Eka.
Her daughter, Marina (Nino Khomassouridze), resents Eka's consuming affection for the far-away Otar. She is an Afghanistan War widow, the family's sole breadwinner (she inexpertly sells junk at a flea market), and bitterly rails against the state of her country. She is almost institutionally incapable of imagining a future. Such yearning and ambition is the province of her daughter, Ada (Dinara Droukarova), who will not be held down by the weight of the region's history.
When Marina and Ada learn that Otar has died, they choose to protect what they perceive is Eka's emotional vulnerability by not revealing the news. There is too the larger sense that perpetuating a known situation by any means, rather than tackling difficult change, is the pre-ordained course for these countrywomen. So Ada and her mother struggle to maintain the fiction, with Ada increasingly reluctant to continue. When she lashes out at her mother, a family friend counsels, "Her generation has always lived a lie."
Of course, this artificial center cannot hold and the truth will out, though Julie Bertuccelli's film (co-written with Bernard Renucci) never succumbs to melodrama and the story continues to feel organic. Since Otar Left ... is French documentarian Bertuccelli's debut feature, and her previous experience serves her well. Her camera ably captures small revelatory moments such as Eka's careful placing of the stamp upon her letter to Otar, or Ada's idle tracing of a name carved in her school desk.
The three actresses likewise deserve credit: Each contributes to a believable portrait of a family, and nation, caught between the past and the future -- and between lies and truth -- that cautiously must navigate a bittersweet, but quietly stirring, present. In Russian, Georgian and French, with subtitles.