Georgian filmmaker Zaza Urushadze had a well-deserved international breakout with 2013’s “Tangerines,” a gentle seriocomedy about the futility of war whose sleeper success carried it all the way to an Oscar nomination. His new film, “The Confession” is another handsome miniature set in a tiny village, but further comparisons aren’t useful — or flattering.
As artificially conceived as its predecessor was organic, this drama about a priest whose rural posting is complicated by the local sexpot might better have been played as comedy. Yet it expects audiences to accept, poker-faced, not only the existence of a Marilyn Monroe lookalike in a Caucasus mountain backwater, but an eventual turn toward femme fatale melodrama that plunges the movie right off the rails.
Everyone is allowed a misfire once in a while. It’s just too bad Urushadze’s had to follow his highest-profile effort to date with this odd and off-key work, subjecting it to more attention — and disappointment — than it would have otherwise have gotten.
Still, it takes a while for the viewer to perceive there’s anything very wrong with “The Confession,” if only because its worst central idea makes a delayed entrance. For some time, things are amiable enough as we follow Father Giorgi (Dimitri Tatishvili) and his antic younger assistant Valiko (Joseph Khvedelidze) to a remote community in easternmost Georgian region Kakheti, where there have been no church services since a longtime clergyman died two months earlier. Meditative and melancholy, his slightly boho air enhanced by a ponytail, Giorgi is as testily serious as Valiko is silly — though even Giorgi admits his sidekick helps keep life here “amusing.”
Once an aspiring filmmaker (we eventually learn he took the cloth after suffering a personal tragedy), Giorgi hasn’t entirely left that interest behind. In fact, he’s brought a projector and a sizable store of movie classics on DVD, hoping to provide some fun as well as food for thought in a place where there’s no internet service, let alone other entertainment options. The villagers are delighted by the prospect of movie night, helping turn an abandoned hall into a makeshift cinema. Aiming for an easy crowdpleaser as their first selection, the holy men pick “Some Like It Hot.”
Afterward, more than one resident notes that the local music teacher bears a resemblance to Marilyn — something our protagonists soon discover is rather jaw-droppingly true. An incongruously glam figure in these peasant environs, Lili (Sophia Sebiskveradze) duly sports a platinum-dyed ’do just like Monroe’s, with form-fitting dresses to match. She’s not particularly well-liked, however, having spurned the advances of all men since her husband’s demise. Giorgi’s invitation prompts her first church visit in memory, after which she becomes a regular, even stepping in when the priests’ glum housekeeper (Nata Murvanidze) takes a leave of absence.
Though the few principal characters are well-played and initially intriguing, they’re not well enough developed to keep the film from springing credibility leaks when Giorgi and Lili begin to spend a little too much time together, and their separate motivations are murky. There are also clumsily advanced subplots involving a troubled teenage boy (Saba Gavva) who’s one of Lili’s piano students, and an outcast man (Kakha Gogidze) who warns the newcomers that the villagers “are not very good people,” despite their harmless mien.
All these hitherto tepid factors jump up and body-slam one another in a climactic revelation — involving pederasty, possible schizophrenia, a near-lynching and more — that the film is not at all prepared to handle. Worse still, the characters respond to this turn of events in ways that blatantly contradict the scant psychological insights we’ve been afforded thus far. Urushadze the director seems to have been betrayed by Urushadze the scenarist, and just minutes after firing so much heavy dramatic artillery, the film jerks to a lame, jokey halt.
Somewhere among its vaguely spiritual air, its homage to cinema (in addition to “Hot,” we get clips from “Vertigo” and Chaplin’s “The Kid”), and a temptress who’s finally perhaps less Monroe than Mamie Van Doren, “The Confession” loses its way completely, and whatever Urushadze was trying to say gets garbled as well as more than a bit ludicrous. That’s a pity, because his collaborators are certainly working hard: The performers are better than the writing deserves (Khvedelidze is even quite delightful), and the presentation is handsome, even if this largely nocturnal and interior-set tale doesn’t allow the degree of pastoral beauty showcased in “Tangerines.”