If one of the most interesting developments in world cinema recently has been the emergence of a coherent and impressive national new wave in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Rezo Gigineishvili’s “Hostages” perhaps marks a kind of maturation point for the movement. It’s not that the film, a fictionalized retelling of a real-life 1980s hijacking in which seven young Georgians attempted to reroute an airplane to Turkey in order to defect to the West, is any stronger or more powerful than the foundational films of this regional revival, such as George Ovashvili’s “Corn Island,” Zaza Urushadze’s Oscar-nominated “Tangerines” and last year’s stunning Karlovy Vary-awarded “The House Of Others” from Rusudan Glurjidze. If anything, it is considerably more generic and anonymous than those titles, but that in itself is a kind of progress: “Hostages” marks the point at which Georgian cinema has gained in self-confidence to the degree that it can now set its sights on the mainstream, at least at home, with this polished recreation serving to repackage a painful incident from the country’s recent history as an effectively glossy thriller.

It is 1983 and a group of attractive young people, centered around actor Nika (Irakli Kvirikadze) and his fiancée Anna (Tina Dalakishvili) are splashing about in the shallows of the gray Black Sea on the country’s western coast. The mood of youthful exuberance is stalled by the appearance of some soldiers who tell them to get dressed. “Are you afraid we’ll try to swim to Turkey?” jokes one of their number — but as the subsequent scenes unfold we become gradually more aware of the truth spoken in that jest.

The circle of friends, mostly the children of relatively apolitical, financially comfortable, and cluelessly oblivious professional parents (people we’d call middle class if there were such thing as classes in the Soviet Union) engage in benignly subversive activities like going to church and swapping smuggled-in Beatles albums. But there is also among them the tendency to sudden silences and meaningful looks: something is in the offing.

We remain outside their conspiracy, however — a narrative decision that robs Gigineishvili and Nasha Bugadze’s script of the possibility for deep characterization or real connection to any of the participants. Their inchoate desire for the “freedom” represented by the west is therefore never explored enough to comprehend, whether to condemn their naïveté or exalt their bravery. This disconnect is reflected in the professional but slightly aloof filmmaking, especially DP Vladislav Opelyants’ smooth, disinterested camerawork, which comes into its own during one whirling, drunken dancing sequence at Nika and Anna’s wedding, and later during the tense, bloody, disastrous attempted hijacking, but elsewhere is detached and cool to the touch.

That remove is frustrating, as there is a meaty mystery here, but it doesn’t lie in how the haphazard plan went so tragically wrong — that is successfully and excitingly dramatized with an eye for suspenseful action beats that could see Gigineishvili courted by Hollywood. The mystery is in the why: and specifically in why, at the moment it’s clear beyond any doubt that their plan has no chance of success, several of the plotters elect to open fire. There is a world of motivational and moral significance contained in that moment, but we know so little of these people that it’s hard to reconcile their dreams of a freer life (especially when their relatively privileged lives at home in Tbilisi, however proscribed, seem several degrees away from intolerable) with the reality of bullets and blood and collateral casualties. Whatever sympathy we have for the characters threatens to evaporate when they’re not simply willing to die for their ideals, but willing to kill for them too.

It’s an impressive and well-made hijacking thriller, but it feels like an opportunity missed because where it counts, “Hostages” remains on the fence. It’s hesitant in outright condemning the hijackers — they are so young, and to modern Western eyes, or those of native Georgians who can remember Soviet rule, their desire for escape must be very understandable. But Gigineishvili also refuses to lay too much blame on their uncomprehending and horrified parents, or, most crucially, on the oppressive regime from which they were trying to escape, aside from a generalized, unsatisfying sense that oppression breeds rebellion, which can sometimes lead to an abrogation of moral principles. Without a more pointed thesis at its heart, although there can be little doubt that the film (and the real-life incident on which it was based), unfolds as a tragedy, the question remains: whose tragedy?

Berlin Film Review: ‘Hostages’

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 10th, 2017. Running time: 104 MIN. (Original title: "Mdzevlebi")

  • Production: (Georgia-Russia-Poland) A Nebo Film Company, 20 Steps Prods. production. (International sales: WestEnd Films, London). Producers: Mikhail Finogenov, Tamara Tatishvili.
  • Crew: Director: Rezo Gigineishvili. Screenplay: Nasha Bugadze, Gigineishvili. Camera (color): Vladislav Opelyants. Editors: Jaroslav Kaminski, Andrey Gamov.
  • With: Tina Dalakishvili, Irakli Kvirikadze, Giga Datiashvili, Giorgi Grdzelidze, George Tabidze, Giorgi Khurtsilava, Vakhtang Chachanidze, Ekaterine Kalatozishvili, Darejan Kharshiladze, Merab Ninidze. (Georgian, Russian dialogue.)