Otar Iosseliani is up to his usual delectable tricks in “Chantrapas,” a playfully caustic tale of the trials and tribulations a Georgian filmmaker endures at home and in exile in France. A fine example of a cagey auteur making precisely the film he intends — and certainly consistent with his past work, a relevant point in the context of the film at hand — commercial and festival response likely will match past reception to Iosseliani’s work: plaudits from Europe and Asia, but yawns from North America.
This isn’t an autobiographical portrait, even if the path taken by director Niko (Dato Tarielashvili, neutral and borderline expressionless), transplanted from Georgia to France, roughly parallels Iosseliani’s own. As Iosseliani notes in the film’s pressbook interview, he managed to escape the worst of the Soviet-era censors, learning how to work around their heavy hand. Niko, by contrast, never figures out how to play the game, fleeing to France to find rapacious producers who are worse than the Communist bureaucrats.
The stakes are underlined in the film’s clever opening, in which Niko screens a scene from his new film for Barbara (Tamuna Karumidze), a school pal who’s now a censor. (The clip shown is actually from a never-seen 1959 short by Iosseliani that uses montage to critique industrialism.) Barbara’s message to Niko is to be tactically smart with the censors, but he seems aloof and too cocksure to take her point to heart.
Such is Niko’s character throughout “Chantrapas” — Russian slang that best translates as “good-for-nothing,” and an epithet his enemies might use when faced with Niko’s mule-headed stubbornness. Some of the pic’s early sections are bits from Niko’s earlier films, which becomes clear during lensing of an absurd-looking period piece. Iosseliani’s distinctive mise en scene is entertaining to watch, since his taste for ensemble staging with a distant, steady but roving camera is a fine fit for the film-crew scenes, with their semi-controlled chaos.
Niko likes to storyboard his films, but life at home with his feisty grandfather (a hilarious Givi Sarchimelidze) and grandmother (Nino Tchkheidze) is an endless series of interruptions. The chaos is matched in his editing office by intrusive censors, ministers and apparatchiks, who at one point temporarily assume final cut. But Niko’s crew stands up to the officials and pesters the editor until he ankles — a nice political gesture by Iosseliani that suggests the film’s crew rep the most truly collectivist workers.
However, there are no victories in this portrait of a headstrong young artist, merely a chain of promises, prospects, deals and run-ins that turn to disappointment. After Niko flees to the West and France to supposedly greener pastures, aided by a producer (comedy actor-auteur Pierre Etaix), the film makes its bitter cultural-political intent clear.
The charms of a modern world juxtaposed against a more antique one are ever-present in Iosseliani’s work, and examples abound in “Chantrapas,” from Niko’s messages back home to his grandparents sent via carrier pigeon to production designer Emmanuel de Chauvigny’s deliberate depiction of Niko’s working space as a starving-artist’s garret. Even the director’s preferred 1.66 aspect ratio has the effect of watching a film of another era. Iosseliani’s technical mastery is best revealed by the consistency in the warm-toned cinematography, from different lensers — Lionel Cousin in France and Julie Grunebaum in Georgia.