Georgi Shengalaya's "Journey of a Young Composer" (at the Fox International), a stunning parable of innocence and paranoia, takes us into the ruggedly beautiful, fear-ridden Russian Georgia of 1909.
For five years Russia has been badly shaken by uprisings against the czar, and the tremors are felt sharply in the remote countryside. Yet it is just at this time that Nikusha (Giya Peradze), a pale young Tiflis musician, decides to record Georgian folk songs on the wax cylinders of his quaint new-fangled machine.
Armed with a letter of introduction to a rural doctor, reluctantly bestowed upon him by his professor, the naive, self-absorbed youth sets out on a journey that is as perilous as a sightseeing trip of Iran would be for an ordinary American today. Early on, Nikusha gives a lift to a wild-eyed, hot-headed anarchist called Leko Tatasheli (Levan Abashidze) who foolishly convinces himself that Nikusha has a plan for a new uprising.
A more tragic instance of the blind leading the blind would be hard to imagine. Instead of escorting Nikusha back to Tiflis, as the doctor has firmly requested, Leko takes Nikusha on a round of visits to those intellectuals and landed gentry most vulnerable to the omnipresent czarist troops, who don't hesitate to execute on the spot anyone who strikes them as being the least bit suspicious. (Unfortunately, the film's English subtitles do not begin to make clear Leko's mistaken view of Nikusha, which sets the story in motion.)
Nikusha and Leko's misbegotten odyssey takes them from one ancient estate to another, many of them bringing to mind the tile-roofed, galleried haciendas of early California. One household seems to be composed entirely of women, another farm boasts many brothers who work the field in black pants and vests over neat white shirts. On the whole, these rural Georgians are hearty, highly individualistic but formal people, yet hospitality is so much a part of their code of honor they feel they must extend it--even if it means endangering their very lives.
In "Journey of a Young Composer," which was based on Otar Chkheidze's novel "The Nameless Wind," Shengalaya expands his scale and scope while retaining the austerity and subtlety of "Pirosmani," his superb biography of the tormented Georgian folk artist of the same name. Like "Pirosmani," "Journey of a Young Composer" displays an acute sense of composition and an appreciation of texture.
As Nikusha, Peradze is a maddeningly convincing innocent and a perfect foil to Abashidze's robust Leko, whose flamboyance echoes all the more disturbingly in an atmosphere of the utmost solemnity. "Journey of a Young Composer" (Times-rated: Mature for complex themes), which took the award for best direction at the Berlin Film Festival last year, reaffirms Shengalaya's position in the front ranks of Soviet directors.
'JOURNEY OF A YOUNG COMPOSER'
An IFEX release of a Gruziafilm production. Director Georgi Shengalaya. Screenplay Erlom Akhvlediani, Shengalaya; based on the novel "The Nameless Wind" by Otar Chkheidze. Camera Levan Paatashvili. Production designer Boris Tskhakaya. Music Gustav Mahler. Starring Giya Peradze and Levan Abashidze. In Russian, with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.