A strong sense of atmosphere fails to compensate for an undernourished narrative in “Brides,” a naturalistic observational drama too vague in its details to engender a more powerful rooting interest in its characters. Georgian helmer Tinatan Kajrishvili’s debut feature centers on a woman in her mid-30s whose partner is serving a 10-year prison sentence, and the stressful hoops she must jump through in order to see him. While inevitable comparisons with the Berlinale’s other Georgian title, Levan Koguashvili’s low-key charmer “Blind Dates,” won’t favor “Brides,” further fest play seems likely, particularly in femme-centric and human-rights showcases.

Slim, strong-willed seamstress Nutsa (Mari Kitia) has a lot on her plate. She must work and take care of her two young children while, for reasons never specified, her significant other, Goga (Giorgi Maskharashvili), is rotting in a distant jail, where changing regulations make it a nightmare for families to communicate with their imprisoned loved ones. When it seems that spouses will obtain monthly visiting rights, Nutsa lines up with a diverse group of women for the quickie prison wedding that gives the film its title. The registrar and guards only allow the couples a quick, tearful embrace before the grooms are returned to their cells.

For Nutsa, visiting the prison is a wrenching, draining experience. A long drive in the pre-dawn darkness is followed by an indeterminate wait in the cold, where the would-be visitors huddle together and share cups of tea, while the young children cry and wet their pants. Once inside the building, humiliating searches and confiscation of gifts add to the tension. Out-of-patience children scream and refuse to speak their almost forgotten fathers. Separated by a thick pane of glass, and in the presence of so much family, Nutsa and Goga can hardly express their emotions, let alone what is foremost on their minds.

When a friend of Goga’s suggests that a payment to a certain prosecutor might shorten his sentence, Nutsa sells a family-heirloom carpet, only to hear later that the prosecutor has been arrested for fraud. As the seasons and the holidays pass, her frustration increases. A flirtation with a handsome young customer (Giorgi Makharadze) interrupts her mind-numbing routine of child minding, homemaking and work, although the narrative details here are annoyingly ill defined. The film’s strongest moments come at the end, when Nutsa and Goga, along with some of the other prison brides and their husbands, are allowed “private” overnight visits in small cottages on the prison grounds.

Helmer Kajrishvili collaborated with her husband, David Chubinishvili, on the screenplay, which is based on their own experiences when he was behind bars. Perhaps because they are so close to the story, they seem to have felt no need to make the narrative and characters more compelling for outsiders. While the viewer naturally feels empathy for Nutsa and Goga, “Brides” doesn’t inspire the attachment and heartbreak one feels for the characters in “Blind Dates,” where naturalistic drama is pleasurably leavened by understated humor and irony.

In the main role, theater thesp Kitia manages to suggest her many roles as devoted wife, passionate lover, dedicated mother and tough daughter without words or melodrama, even if the screenplay rarely allows us access to her thoughts. Claustrophobically intimate lensing by Goga Devdariani graphically stresses how the families of the inmates are as confined as those of the prisoners, albeit in a different way; the dominant yellows, greens and grays of the production design seem to echo the main characters’ bruising experience.

Berlin Film Review: ‘Brides’

<p>Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 12, 2014. Running time: <strong>93 MIN. </strong>Original title: "Patardzlebi"</p>

  • Production: <p>(Georgia-France) A Gemini, As Astra Films, Millimeter Film production. (International sales: Rezo Films, Paris.) Produced by Tinatin Kajrishvili. Executive producer, Goga Loladze. Co-producers, Sebastien Aubert, Suliko Tsukukidze, Lasha Khalvashi.</p>
  • Crew: <p>Directed by Tinatin Kajrishvili. Screenplay, Kajrishvili, David Chubinishvili. Camera (color, HD), Goga Devdariani; editor, David Guiraud; music, Rim Laurens; production designer, Giga Iakobashvili; costume designer, Maka Jebirashvili; sound designer, Todd Warren; sound (5.1), Vano Gvaradze.</p>
  • With: <p>Mari Kitia, Giorgi Maskharashvili, Giorgi Makharadze, Darejan Khachidze, Tamar Mamulashvili, Anuka Grigolia, Sergo Buiglishvili, Beka Samadbegishvili, Nita Kalichava, Zaza Kashibadze. (Georgian dialogue)</p>