Richly toned 35mm lensing and elegant camerawork distinguish Teona Mghvdeladze and Thierry Grenade’s “Brother,” an overly staged drama about the clash between the salve of culture vs. the lure of chaos. Set in 1991 during Georgia’s anarchic break from the collapsing Soviet Union, the pic expresses a mournful nostalgia for the kind of refined culture, especially music, that went hand-in-hand with dignity, interrupted if not lost in the civil unrest. Using the old-fashioned device of two brothers moving in opposite directions, “Brother” is a mildly pleasing work that won’t cause any revolutions, but can sit handsomely in fest sidebars.
A quiet street in Tbilisi is jolted by youths in cars whooping “Long live independence!” as older people mutter that they don’t understand anything now. Upright, kind Maia (Natasha Shengelaia) has two sons, Giorgi (Irakli Basil Ramishvili) and Datuna (Zuka Tsirekidze). Giorgi is on the cusp of manhood, exactly the age when it’s easy to be seduced by the thrill of money and power; Datuna, 10, is an ebullient piano prodigy whose Mozart and Schubert performances waft through the windows and assure the neighbors that something is still right in the world.
“Brother” avoids spelling out the political situation apart from a brief introductory title, instead wisely choosing atmosphere and the sense of a city teetering on the brink of chaos, where kids barter in shell casings and quiet streets are interrupted by gunfire. Giorgi falls in with the wrong crowd, impressed by a small-time hood with a yellow Mercedes, and the sense of power that comes from holding a gun. While Maia sells the family silver for a mere $27 to scrape by, Giorgi mysteriously comes home with enough money to buy a piano. Datuna’s passion for his music and for pleasing others is the one bright spot on the street, but then he witnesses an abduction and murder, and his bubbly nature turns morose.
The pic’s melancholy is part of its strength, tied to the struggle between those determined to preserve the gentility of so-called “old world” culture and the lawless forces let loose by the power vacuum who’ll mindlessly sweep it all away in favor of a more crass, selfish future. The elderly Mr. Archil (Kahi Kavsadze), one of Maia’s neighbors, represents that dying class, surrounded by books and music yet soon to be overwhelmed by a wave of tawdriness and conceit.
The overall impact is moving, yet the picture works better as an abstract whole rather than as individual parts, owing to the sense that every character is a representative of an idea rather than a fully rounded individual — including Giorgi’s noble, beautiful g.f., Nata (Elena Glurjidze), more icon than flesh and blood. Even the way people on the street move in and out of the frame appears excessively studied, with no movement happening by chance.
Choosing to shoot on 35mm helps enormously in capturing both era and mood, allowing for richly patinated tonalities that convey a comforting warmth, especially in the interiors, kept dimly lit since residents needed to conserve electricity in such uncertain times. As time passes, winter sets in and colors turn colder, with only Datuna’s music offering a feeling of consolation; when that too seems lost, the sadness is truly palpable.