Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Jim Shuante / Sol Svanetii

(Marili svanets / Sol Svanetii) [Džim Suante (Il sale della Svanetia) / Salt for Svanetia]  (Sakhkinmretsvi, Georgian Soviet Republic, 1930). D: Mikhail Kalatozov (Kalatozishvili); SC: Sergei Tretyakov; DP: Mikhail Kalatozov, Shalva Ghegelashvili; AD: Davit Kakabadze; asst .dir: S. Palavandishvili; 35 mm, 1387 m,64' (19 fps); from: Gosfilmofond of Russia. Russian intertitles. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Pordenone (GCM) with e-subtitles in English and Italian and Philip C. Carli on the grand piano, 5 Oct 2010

Nino Dzandzava and David Robinson in the GCM Catalogue: "Mikhail Kalatozov (1903-1973; born Mikheil Kalatozishvili in Tbilisi, Georgia) studied economics, but soon found his way into the Sakhkinmretsvi studio in Tbilisi, initially as a driver and then projectionist.

They felt their hopes entirely justified by the film that resulted, which also incorporated material from The Blind Woman. The great radical critic Harry Alan Potamkin (1900-1933), who had formulated the English title Salt for Svanetia, described it enthusiastically in Close-Up (March 1931):

“Kalatozov has established his point-of-view at once in the bold image and stern grand angles … It is unrelenting in its exposure of the dread life of the Swans, exploited and hopeless, incarcerated by the mountains. The funeral of the tuberculosis victim is excruciating in its dire grief. The widow, dripping her milk into the grave, condemns the collusion of paganism and Christianity conspiring against human happiness. ‘We will not give our milk to the grave,’ the women cry in revolt. The film calls and we respond: ‘These people must be saved – roads and salt!’ The last part shouting this slogan directly is a weak addendum – the entire film cries that convincingly enough.”

Jim Shuante belongs to the Kulturfilm genre. While apparently describing the everyday life of the Svans (inhabitants of the Svanetia region), it is neither an ethnographic nor a documentary film in the style recognized in Georgia and the Soviet Union in general. Kalatozov does not set out to depict the truth in a categorical documentary manner, and disregards factual accuracy. For example, the Svans were not accustomed to turn pregnant women out of the house to give birth, though the custom was once widespread in another Georgian region, Khevsureti. Neither, at the other extreme, does the episode showing enthusiastic and muscular Socialists arriving to build a road to connect the region with the rest of the world reflect reality – it was to be much later before the problem of Svanetia’s roads was even marginally resolved. At the same time Kalatozov is concerned to depict and create visual images of the life of people suffering from severe natural conditions, salt shortages, and isolation caused by the lack of roads.

While Dziga Vertov idealizes fact for its own sake, Kalatozov is concerned with the generalization and transformation of fact into image. He prefers to express himself in artistic and poetic images, showing that even in feature or documentary films set in places where life is merciless, there is still a place for poetry. At every stage of his creative work, Kalatozov’s films show that he thinks visually, shaping a form and fitting the plot in the visual composition of the film. At that time also he was aiming to achieve a three-dimensional effect through the use of intensive light and emphasizing optical methods and relief.

Aided by his fellow cinematographer Shalva Ghegelashvili, Kalatozov succeeds in exploring his ideas for developing film language. As in most of his films, the camera is very expressive and aggressive. The director is fascinated with restless camera movement, aimed to keep the spectator in a state of permanent tension. He was the first in the Georgian cinema to make use of subjective images, like the shot of the overturning Svan towers to convey the impression of a dizzy person. Years later he was to use the same effect in The Cranes are Flying (1957), in a scene in which the dying soldier’s point of vision is shown by the whirling of birch trees overhead.

In contrast to the enthusiasm of Potamkin and those Georgian and Russian cineastes who were able to see it, the film was not well received officially at home. Leyda tells us that “Twenty-five leading citizens of Svanetia denied that the peculiar customs shown in the film had ever existed, and claimed that it was more important for a film to show the modernization of Svantetia than old customs”. More seriously, despite the dutifully mendacious ideological conformity of the last sequence (Soviet workers build the road and the problem of isolation is solved), the film was rigorously criticized by the artistic-political council of the Sakhkinmretsvi Studio. The charge was again excessive aspiration for form. The Party censors were not mollified by the appearance of Socialist tractors in the final scene, and complained that the visual aspect of the film did not adequately serve the ideological purpose. Whether formally or informally, Soviet censorship succeeded in suppressing Jim Shuante so that even the title was virtually erased until its director achieved sudden international prominence when The Cranes Are Flying won the Golden Palm at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival. Even then, it was to be a further three decades before the film itself could finally be seen. – NINO DZANDZAVA & DAVID ROBINSON."

The visual quality of the print is slightly variable, often good. Kalatozov's strong visual concept is consistent with exciting camera angles and a preference of low angles. Whether this is authentic or not, there is a compelling drive in the account of the mores and customs, the milieu and the hardships, the snow in July, the making of the felt hat, the building of the bridge over the river, the cultivation of barley, the importance of salt. The finale is Soviet montage propaganda with explosive editing, banners and promises of an irresistible victory for the pioneers of progress.

No comments: