Neither a long day’s journey into night nor a long night’s journey into day, but a trek in which time and destination become equally indeterminate as fatigue sets in, “Khibula” takes an unusually, imprecisely poetic approach to historical fact as it recounts the last months in the life of former Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia. This imposing third feature from leading Georgian filmmaker George Ovashvili prioritizes environmental texture and flourishes of folk art over Wikipedia-style biographical detail as it attempts to unpick the mentality of a leader in uncertain exile. Following its subject and his entourage through the wilderness from one temporary resting place to the next, the film becomes, at least partly by design, something of a slog: The physical and psychological exhaustion of a life lived in constant limbo is felt here, though any emotional rewards are low-key ones.
This somewhat oblique, deliberately repetitive route risks curbing “Khibula’s” international distribution prospects relative to those of Ovashvili’s last film “Corn Island,” which took top honors at the Karlovy Vary festival and made the foreign-language Academy Award shortlist in 2014. Plentiful festival bookings, however, should transpire for this substantial, stonily handsome project, following its premiere as a star attraction in Karlovy Vary’s official competition. (It would not be surprising, meanwhile, to see Georgia’s selectors again deem Ovashvili their best Oscar bet.) Wherever it winds up traveling, “Khibula” is likely to significantly raise awareness among audiences of Georgia’s first democratically elected post-Soviet president, a major political figure whose very death remains clouded in ambiguity.
The introductory title cards of “Khibula” contain more concentrated historical information than the rest of the film: Months after being elected President of the newly independent state in May 1991, Gamsakhurdia — played with mournful stoicism by veteran Iranian actor Hossein Mahjoob — was deposed in a violent coup d’état, forcing him to flee to the Caucasus Mountains as civil war ensued. Ovashvili and Dutch co-writer Roelof-Jan Minneboo otherwise keep their lean script light on political context and nuance, in ways that could be viewed either as sympathetic to, or tacitly critical of, their subject. His point of view dominates, as he maintains his conviction that he’ll once more rule a country “now in the hands of traitors and liars,” but his persistent failure to address the raging conflict invites questions about how deeply he understands the land he loves.
For the film’s purposes, at least, his silence is golden. With the screenplay’s stray passages of political rhetoric on the stilted side, “Khibula” is strongest when it relies on subtler symbolic means — be it a shift in light or of facial expression — to suggest Gamsakhurdia’s state of mind as he and his band of followers trudge through a deceptively bucolic landscape, its peacefulness sporadically pierced by enemy bullets. The film segues casually between waking life and dream states, though even when it comes to the former, realism isn’t a strict objective. As he moves ever deeper into the forest, the President’s suit-and-tie attire changes not once in the grueling course of proceedings — signifying his unwavering view of himself as an appointed statesman, even as the possibility of his ever returning to office grows more and more distant.
Is he a vital idealist or merely in dignified denial? Neither the filmmaking nor Mahjoob’s increasingly stricken, internalized performance provides an emphatic answer. The public view of Gamsakhurdia, furthermore, alternates from one household to the next, as his itinerant mini-army seeks shelter with a succession of impoverished rural citizens — some devoted to his cause, others disillusioned. Traditional songs, repeatedly dedicated to the President by the locals, form a running, inconsistent commentary of sorts on the state of a wounded nation: a motif the film perhaps overuses in the course of its relatively short running time, but still a pleasingly abstract alternative to more prosaic methods of sociopolitical scene-setting.
Even in “Khibula’s” most murkily challenging stretches, Enrico Lucidi’s rich, earth-toned, sometimes starkly stylized 35mm lensing is a consistent source of light and interest, whether exploring the craggy majesty of the Caucasus peaks or the equally complex, creviced landscape of the protagonist’s face. Special below-the-line credit must also go to Ariunsaichan Dawaachu’s textured, driftwood-hued production design. The weatherbeaten surfaces and sparse decorative touches of the various homes in which Gamsakhurdia finds temporary refuge are laden with evocative details about the hard, ordinary existences lived permanently within their walls — Georgian lives that may not be as transitory as that of their fugitive leader, but are no less fraught for remaining in one place.