Georgian cinema has a new star in director Levan Koguashvili, whose superb neorealist drama, “Street Days,” is just the calling card the beleaguered country needs. Stylistically and thematically reminiscent of new Romanian cinema, the pic plumbs the contentious, corrupt and crumbling social landscape of Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, while following a down-at-the-heels heroin addict struggling to protect a friend’s son from corrupt cops. Lensed with impressive assurance and boasting powerful perfs from a combo of established pros and non-pros, “Street Days” looks poised to lead a Georgian renaissance spearheaded by fests and advancing into the arthouse circuit.
Fortysomething Checkie (Guga Kotetishvili) was part of the promising generation that came of age when the country declared independence from Russia in 1991 but, like many others, wasn’t equipped to cope in a world of unfettered capitalism. Now a poster boy for wasted potential, Checkie hangs out with fellow junkies clustered around his son’s school. Koguashvili uses the streetscape, and the proximity of locales, almost like a stage set but without any of the spatial limitations.
Close to the other end of the spectrum is Checkie’s old classmate Zaza (Zura Sharia), now a successful government minister willing to help out, as long as it’s in small ways. Zaza’s teen son, Ika (Irakli Ramishvili), and his motley friends are keen to try heroin for themselves, but Checkie rebuffs Ika’s request for a fix.
A couple of cops on surveillance realize they’re looking at a gold mine if they can bust Ika and then blackmail his dad, so they threaten Checkie with jail time unless he agrees to set the teen up. In poor health and in desperate need of money to pay for drugs and to help ex-wife Nino (Ruso Kobiashvili) on her defaulted bank loan, Checkie reluctantly acquiesces but then stalls for time.
It’s no surprise that everything catastrophically falls apart. But the script allows touches of black humor to illumine the coming tragedy, and Koguashvili’s palpable respect for his characters results in a deeply sympathetic portrait of a man thrown to the wolves.
In ways similar to the recent crop of Romanian helmers, Koguashvili perceptively examines how basically decent people cope with a world requiring more negotiating skills than they’re equipped to handle. Checkie’s addiction is neither demonized nor glamorized, but depicted as a crutch that offers very little relief.
However, “Street Days” is more than a picture of an individual. It’s also a damning glimpse into a disintegrating society where suspicious neighbors are quick with verbal attacks, and everyone’s in it only for themselves. Further reinforcing the lack of social cohesion, the helmer keeps the figures carefully spaced apart, emphasizing their isolation.
There are a couple of false notes that jar with the overall subtlety — a teacher’s lesson too obviously signals what’s to come, and a nightmare sequence seems to have been taken from another film — but these are minor faults.
Despite her small role, Kobiashvili leaves a lasting impression as Checkie’s spiritually and physically exhausted ex-wife, though it’s Kotetishvili, an artist making his acting debut, who’s bound to attract the most attention as Checkie himself. Helmer Koguashvili allowed a fair amount of improvisation, which adds an extra degree of realism.
Archil Akhvlediani’s fluid Red 4K camera handsomely transcribes space and multiple planes, with striking use of foreground and background. Predominant colors are browns, grays and washed-out blues, which pick up on the broken streets and unmaintained buildings, as abandoned as the people themselves.